Reporting from the front of the war on research bureaucracy

Matt McCallum is an expert detangler of red tape - so his analysis of the government’s war on research bureaucracy is coming straight from the front line.

Research administration professionals: we understand the true costs of bureaucracy, we know where the (administrative) bodies are buried and we have read The Guidance (twice).

Research administrators are by nature translators. They sit (occasionally uncomfortably) at the intersection of the academic and the administrative worlds. Their roles can be highly diverse, from ordering Post-it notes to coordinating ethical reviews, but they do have one universal commonality. Their passion is for research and not for bureaucracy.

Few people understand the burden of bureaucracy more viscerally than research administrators do. Much time and effort is expended by research managers and administrators in trying to protect researchers from the worst excesses of the inevitable bureaucracy that surrounds the expenditure of public and charitable funds.

They are specialists in areas which most people are either ambivalent about or actively try to avoid (see also: REF). More often than not, when a particular process is required from a funding body or regulator, it will be a research administrator who will pick this up rather than a researcher.

As such, research administrators are uniquely placed to interpret the impact, on both the environment and the researchers, of either removing a process or requiring a new one. If you wanted to say, design and implement a brand new, fully digital, user-designed grants application system, engaging with the research management and administration community would be a good way of ensuring that said implementation would be successful and achieve the objectives it set out to address.

A welcome surprise for the community came recently in the form of a policy paper from BEIS announcing efforts to “eradicate unnecessary bureaucracy” in the funding system for research and innovation.

Many of those working in the sector could presume that the profession would be defensive over this proposed bonfire of the much-despised “red tape”, particularly as their professional identity has, in some respects, been defined by their usefulness in ensuring compliance with precisely that bureaucracy.

However, the opposite is true, the research management and administration role is all about appreciating and mitigating against the unintended negative consequences of bureaucracy on researchers.

If we want to reconcile our ambitions to streamline our systems and process while driving transparency and accountability then we need to have a common understanding of how administration is experienced in the wild.

The good

Reading the actual guidance is something of a speciality for research administrators and a single document for funding calls is especially welcome. It does seem churlish to point out that this is low-hanging fruit as a single PDF file for guidance is available for the majority of Research Council calls already. Some targets for brevity (a guidance document can frequently be 20 pages or longer) might have been useful but this is certainly a move in the right direction.

Also very welcome to both researchers and administrators is the suggestion of better use of ORCID integration and the adoption of the Royal Society’s work on a standard Résumé for Researchers. A huge amount of time can be spent manually populating CV information and publication records that are already available digitally. This can be a frustrating process when most researchers have carefully curated and audited profiles available through one or more digital platforms (the existence of multiple platforms and lack of a single identity instance is another matter).

The bad

Others have already written on the dangers of the perception that efforts to increase equality, diversion and inclusion in the sector have been deprioritised.

Regardless of the intention to reduce the administrative “box-ticking” required to achieve recognition from a given charter assessment, work on Athena Swan, Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, Race Equality Charter can also provide a focus for discussion and deliberate action to advance equality and inclusion that would not necessarily otherwise exist.

A recent example of confusion caused by the tension between appearing to reduce bureaucracy while still insisting that those same activities were of value came in the abandoning of Pathways to Impact and Impact Summary sections from UKRI grant applications.

While UKRI guidance maintains that “the impact agenda is vital”, in what way removing the requirement for researchers to explicitly articulate how their project will achieve impact helps to achieve this aim is unclear. It is fair to say that impact should be incorporated into the narrative of an application but this does assume that researchers both want to and know how to do this in the absence of any incentives or guidance.

Applicants have been surprised when reviewers return feedback requesting further information on Pathways despite it no longer being a requirement, demonstrating a lack of understanding between even peer review panels and prospective PIs.

Few could argue that every impact summary was of high quality or that they were not sometimes tokenistic but the implicit message to researchers by removing the statement is that it is no longer a big deal. Anybody working in knowledge exchange roles can tell you that their jobs convincing sceptical researchers that impact is an important part of what universities contribute to society and the economy became that much more difficult when the impact statements were removed.

Whether the message that “Embedding good practice in equality, diversity and inclusion in our administrative processes is critical to supporting our commitments to address inequalities…” continues to translate into positive outcomes for equality, diversity and inclusion remains to be seen.

The where?

Preparing for the REF is something that that can drain the enthusiasm from even the hardiest of administrators – although, some colleagues claim to enjoy the process. It draws on an enormous amount of time from university staff, not least in just overcoming the general antipathy of many researchers towards the exercise. It is also something that has been already widely written about.

One area of increasing cause of concern and perhaps an area of great opportunity to reduce the time that researchers waste on bureaucracy would be addressing the sheer volume of unsuccessful funding applications.

Success rates are frighteningly low for Research Council awards and each unsuccessful application represents an enormous investment of time from both researchers and administrators.

Introducing an EOI “longlisting” stage for applications does not necessarily reduce the bureaucracy, as most universities will want the same assurances about the costs of delivering a project before they have committed to making an application. This involves jumping through the same internal administrative hoops with costing, approval for match-funding, ethics consideration etc. as any “full” application.

Addressing this problem would be complex, as solutions would have to reconcile such thorny issues as the working conditions of the postdoctoral “precariat”, the competition for a relatively tiny number of permanent academic posts and the cultural associations within academia that link success in securing grant income with academic value.

Addressing something like this needs input from interdisciplinary teams. Teams that bring funders, researchers and administrators together to understand the problem and create solutions that work for all of the stakeholders.

The research management and administration community is here to work as facilitators and enablers to ensure that the gaps between what we say and what we do to deliver the best outcomes for research are closed.

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