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Of paradigms and professors: supporting the full professional journey

How do researchers learn how to lead massive research projects? For Matthew Flinders, the traditional laissez-faire approach is not sustainable.
This article is more than 3 years old

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Chair of the Political Studies Association.

Having spent the last year exploring the topic of researcher development and research leadership in the social sciences my main surprise has been how little research has been undertaken on what professors do or why they do it.

It really is a professional terra incognita – but this may need to change if the research leadership challenge is to be addressed. This gap in the existing evidence base is somewhat anomalous given the huge research literature that exists on “leadership studies” in general, and leadership within higher education in particular. The main focus of this latter strand of research has been on what might be termed managerial or organisational leadership within higher education (i.e. the internal governance of universities).

Limited literature

But when it comes to a specific focus on research leadership within higher education the available scholarship can be set out very clearly as consisting of little more than a handful of articles and the following four books: Paul Ramsden’s Learning to Lead in Higher Education (1988), Robin Middlehurst’s Leading Academics (1993), Bruce Macfarlane’s Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education (2012) and Linda Evans’ Professors as Academic Leaders (2018).

Evans concludes that:

Research leadership, then, would appear to be a legitimate – if not essential – specialised form of higher education leadership. Yet in one sense such leaders are inadequately equipped, for the knowledge base available to them is extremely limited.

The main finding of my evidence review supports this view – as a detailed mapping of the existing infrastructure for supporting researcher development reveals an under-developed and highly fragmented patchwork of provision with a predominant focus on Early Career Researchers. Provision for nurturing and supporting research leadership at the mid and senior levels is noticeably absent with professors generally muddling-through on the job through a combination of luck, learning through mistakes and informal mentoring.

Professors are often expected to take on the running of major multi-million pounds research institutes, centres or networks with very little, if any, support and feelings of isolation, vulnerability and stress are commonly reported. Mid-career staff may also need greater support to, for example, revitalise their research careers, build new networks or possibly even shift to a completely new research focus.

Learning from teaching?

Looking back at my own career what is interesting is that the teaching-side of university life has become increasingly tied to a professional support structure that runs throughout the professional journey. This is overseen by the Higher Education Academy and moves through four stages from associate fellow to principal fellow. The research-related side of university life continues to look quite under-developed in comparison. But given how the research funding landscape is changing plus the need to think more carefully about mental health and wellbeing, is this rather traditional and laissez-faire approach sustainable?

The significance of this question is tied to the manner in which the research funding landscape is rapidly evolving to prioritise projects that demonstrate some of the following five characteristics:

  • (1) They are large, ambitious, and complex (often “hub-and-spoke” in structure);
  • (2) They are inter-disciplinary in nature, international in scope and may involve a consortium of funders;
  • (3) They are likely to embrace forms of co-design and co-production and demonstrate a commitment to inter-sectoral mobility;
  • (4) They combine a focus on knowledge-creation with a commitment to knowledge mobilisation; and
  • (5) They define the research community in broad terms and seek to nurture a truly “open knowledge” network.

The main drift is therefore towards an emphasis on what is often called ‘team science’ which raises distinctive questions about what it means to be a professor, the skillset needed to fulfil a leadership role (note “a” not “the”) within a large and complex project, and how these skills can be nurtured in a supportive environment. It also raises fresh questions about talent spotting and talent management, about building innovative teams and research platforms, about facilitating inter-sectoral mobility and “braided careers”, and about designing new docking points with potential research users so that an emphasis on knowledge-creation is off-set with a similar focus on knowledge-mobilisation. This is why UKRI’s Delivery Plan (June 2019) talks of the need for a “paradigm shift” in supporting careers and this includes not just future leaders, but also those individuals who already hold professorial positions.

Listening mode

It is for exactly this reason that the ESRC has launched a major consultation on researcher development and researcher leadership in order to promote a national conversation about what this “paradigm shift”, or indeed any shift, might look like.

Five issues or themes that emerged from the existing (admittedly slim) evidence base might help start this conversation. First and foremost, do academics and professional research support staff actually recognise the existence of a research leadership challenge and, if so, where are the really innovative examples of building capacity? The second question relates to whether this is more of a challenge for different parts of the academic spectrum than for others. Is it more of a challenge, for example, for the social sciences, arts and humanities than it is for STEM subjects because this is where the lone scholar or – at best – the small team model remains dominant (trespassing across disciplinary boundaries, let alone professional borders, is notoriously tricky)?

The third issue relates not to disciplines but to professional levels and progress through a successful academic career. Just as a dog is not just for Christmas it seems fairly clear that research leadership is not just for professors. Pre-docs and PhD students display research leadership by organising conferences and panels. Lecturers demonstrate research leadership through PhD supervision and the management of grants and most academics serve on journal editorial boards and review grants applications for different funders. But how might a more strategic and ambitious national framework seek to recognise and respond to the needs of scholars at different levels, particularly in terms of thinking about critical transition points? The evidence suggests that being promoted to full professor is widely seen as a final promotion and therefore the end or peak of a career but could more be done to help individuals achieve their full potential?

A fourth issue that is coming across loud and clear in responses to the national consultation is that the existing reward and recognition frameworks often fail to recognise major contributions in terms of research leadership. Mentoring, staff supervision, editing journals, convening conferences is often not counted within work allocation frameworks or promotion structures, especially when weighed against publications and research grant income. Leading complex inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional grant applications also demands a huge amount of time and effort that may well go unrewarded if the application is unsuccessful.

How do we make research leadership count? Last but definitely not least are matters relating to the issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.  How might a fresh focus on research leadership create new opportunities in terms of engaging with long-standing concerns regarding these issues within higher education? Where are the innovations and ideas that might be up-scaled or developed more widely as part of a new and inclusive approach?

If you have any thoughts or ideas about these issues and questions – or concerns about the decline of “donnish dominion” (to paraphrase the title of A. H. Halsey’s book on the changing nature of academe) –  please engage with the national conversation.

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