Building mobile careers in research

Joe Marshall sets out the findings of a new report calling for sector-wide action to promote researcher mobility

Joe Marshall is chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).

Researchers are often missing out on opportunities to work across different environments and domains across the full breadth of the research and innovation system.

For the past seven months, the National Centre for Universities and Business’ Researcher Career Mobility Taskforce, a group of senior business and university leaders co-chaired by NCUB chair Sam Laidlaw and Cranfield University vice chancellor Karen Holford, has been exploring how to create more diverse researcher career pathways across universities, businesses and other sectors.

Understanding the barriers

Analysis of the 2018 MORE3 study of EU nations (including the UK) found that about 20 per cent of UK university researchers have previously been employed in industrial research roles. Career stage is also a significant indicator. Our analysis of HESA data shows that those in early career are more likely to move roles between industry and academia, and the rate goes down for mid- and late-career stages.

To complement the data, the taskforce commissioned Thinks Insight & Strategy to carry out in-depth interviews with over 30 practitioners and organisations, and engaged directly with over 100 stakeholders, to understand the barriers that people and organisations face in career mobility. Through this work, we sought to really understand how it feels to try to build a “mobile” career in the UK right now.

We learnt a few things through this process. First, researchers are often not fully aware of the range of career paths available to them. While there are examples of good practice out there, by and large, the advice, guidance and support that research students and staff get is often focused on an academic career.

Mobility can be seen as “high risk” – so we need formal mechanisms to change this mindset. Many people feel that making a formal move to another sector, or trying to arrange a secondment or part-time arrangement might put them at a disadvantage due to the incentive structures and uncertainties that exist in the system. More university and business-led programmes and initiatives would legitimise these activities.

We also found that institutions’ recruitment and progression frameworks sometimes undervalue skills and experiences gained in other sectors. Many research-active organisations miss out on attracting the best talent because they are not actively welcoming the valuable skills and experience gained in other sectors. They also risk undervaluing staff time spent engaging and collaborating with organisations outside their immediate research environment.

Overall, the UK has brilliant schemes, but they sometimes lack scale and consistency. UKRI and the National Academies offer a range of fellowships and funded secondments, but when you look at the offer in its entirety it is fragmented, inconsistent, and targeted at small, specific cohorts of researchers.

Three prongs

In response to these challenges, the Researcher Career Mobility Taskforce proposes a three-pronged approach: system-wide, within organisations, and among individuals.

To government and to funders, the taskforce advocates a systematic approach to researcher mobility that becomes a fundamental design principle of the UK research and innovation system. The government should find a better way to define and measure mobility more clearly and UK research funders need to come together to design a more ambitious and comprehensive funding offer for intersectoral mobility that matches the aspiration set out in the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy.

For employers within the innovation ecosystem, there’s a need to take responsibility for creating environments that acknowledge and reward the true value of skills, knowledge, and networks. We want businesses and universities to leverage their existing strategic partnerships to set up deliberate mechanisms that facilitate researcher mobility. These have the twin effect of reducing the risk of mobility for individuals, while defining and capturing the organisational benefits through stronger academic-industry collaborations.

At the individual level, universities and businesses must ensure that research staff are presented with guidance and advice that highlights diverse career pathways that span sectors. This empowers researchers to explore their ambitions and interests, while developing a dynamic and adaptable workforce.

However, we recognise that individuals have a responsibility to take control of their own careers. Building on the other recommendations in the report, we urge researchers to demand and pursue exciting, varied career paths – recognising some of the most vital, impactful research in the coming decades will happen at the interfaces of disciplines and sectors.

What’s next?

The taskforce has underlined the compelling benefits of a more navigable research and innovation system. Hiring staff with diverse expertise, experiences and knowledge leads to improved business and research outcomes for both universities and businesses. It also opens the door to new partnership opportunities, enriches networks, and enhances knowledge exchange. For researchers, the opportunity to work in different environments improves the impact of their work and offers highly fulfilling careers. The advantages of this approach are clear and far-reaching.

The publication of the report is the beginning, not the end of our work. Over the next 12 months, we will work with our members, partners and wider stakeholder network to explore how to embed and deliver the recommendations and actions set out in the taskforce report.

For universities, for example, this includes grasping the significant opportunity posed by the next REF exercise to respond positively and collectively to achieve a change in how they recognise and reward industry experience.

By breaking down barriers, fostering collaboration and creating a more inclusive research and innovation ecosystem, the UK will be able to cement its position as a global powerhouse for research and development.

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