By Remco van der Zouw

In this article, Senior Consultant Remco Van der Zouw shares his top four lessons learnt from his grant consulting experiences with Research Management Offices at different European academic institutions.

The aim of the article is to discuss his experiences and provide top tips on how to become a more effective Research Management Office.

Lesson 1: Who are you serving?

Many Research Management Offices at universities start off as a good idea from the University’s Board. As a result, an organisational unit is installed, key performance indicators are identified and the research management journey begins.

TOP TIP

I propose that the researcher’s interest should always be prioritised at a university and that the Research Management Office should seek ways to best support their efforts in acquiring research funding.

However, University Boards tend to be risk averse and as a result they are inclined to focus the efforts of the new department towards containing the risks associated with applying for and receiving research grants. In the proposal phase this often relates to things like using the right organisational information and cost calculation methods, while in the realisation phase of the project it relates to financial and administrative compliance to the funder’s terms and conditions.

At the same time, researchers expect the Research Management Office to offer more support in the funding identification and proposal phase; basically, in assisting them with applying more successfully to research funding programmes and calls. These almost opposing expectations lead to a split in attention, time, and resources of people working in Research Management Offices often in favour of the administration’s objectives over the researcher’s interests.

Investing more time in the pre-award phase will achieve the following:

  1. Increase the researcher’s feeling of being supported; and hence their appreciation and support for the Research Management Office. More effort in this phase will automatically lead to more work in the post-award phase. Do invest your time wisely, particularly if resources are limited, and devise a process to identify high potential proposals versus low potential proposals. High potential is in this case defined as a proposal with a high chance of being awarded either because it is a great proposal, has a great fit with the call or is submitted for a scheme with relatively high success rates; or any combination of these.
     
  2. Increase engagement with university administration. Increased involvement of researchers with the Research Management Office brings together the two most important groups in the university organisation. This will lead to the Research Management Office becoming a more relevant department in the university, showing its added value.
     
  3. Show that the Research Management Office can be proactively used to support university-wide ambitions rather than just reactively supporting researchers with the financial administrative compliance of the awarded grants - for example, by road mapping the funding efforts of departments that want to grow by scanning the research funding landscape in that domain. Relevant questions include what institutes have been successful, what schemes have been successful, what does the department’s network look like and how can the department network strategically, what funding strategy will be used etc.

Lesson 2: What is the impact of what you are doing on the university?

In an effort to become more business-like and goal oriented, some universities and their Research Management Offices have started to implement Key Performance Indicators, as previously mentioned. Too often though these metrics - if chosen badly - may have perverse incentives. Take for example the case of using ‘the total amount of research funding income’ as a metric. If this figure grows the Research Management Office is doing a good job. However, such a metric may result in the office ‘gaming the system’ by providing support to principal investigators (PIs) that don’t really need the support (but the research support office needs the researcher’s grant income to prove that they have an added value).

TOP TIP

I would propose to seek a strategic focus for the Research Management Office that fits the university’s ambitions. An ambitious university looking to increase its research funding income should take a longer timeline and look to support high potential young researchers who will be the next generation PIs. By doing so you are creating a larger base and potential for next generation funding.

      

Lesson 3: Research Management Office - Nice to have or need to have?

People and groups of people that are ‘nice to have’ are the first to be cut in times of economic or budgetary headwind. Make sure your Research Management Office is a need to have. How do you do this? By raising the Research Management Office’s activities to higher levels within the organisation. Meaning not only executing on an organisational level with day-to-day operations, but also adding value by showing how the Research Management Office can add value on a tactical or even strategic level within the university organisation. For example, if a university has the ambition to grow the quality and quantity of its research output, the Research Management Office can assist in drawing up different scenarios, road mapping for the selected scenario and finally implementing it.

An ambitious university will want to attract top research talent, but how do they stand out amongst other universities as an employer? Offering guaranteed support for researchers applying for EU network grants, may signal that the university is serious in its efforts to support the research careers of their researchers, thus making it more attractive as a potential employer.

TOP TIP

I propose that Research Management Offices should always seek to position themselves within a larger organisational perspective by showing how they can contribute to the university’s mission.

Lesson 4: Visibility and attracting researcher engagement

Research Management Offices need to think about how to become successful within their own organisation. How do you sell to the internal customer? Having a spot in your university’s organigram doesn’t mean that people know:

  1. What you are doing. What services and support do you offer to them as researchers?
  2. How to access these services and support.

Despite their popularity, online forms are not the most inviting way for researchers to interact with the Research Management Office. Besides easy online access, Research Management Offices need to think about using the university community to spread the word on their services, support and added value. Maybe appointing ambassadors within the different departments or faculties can help, or using the experiences of past successful proposers to ‘sell’ your service to the internal research community. Think about the human factor at the receiving end of your service and use that ‘soft’ knowledge to complement the portals, websites and digital services in becoming more outreaching and successful.

TOP TIP

I propose that Research Management Offices, in addition to their online presence and programmed activities, think about the best way to use the university’s community to deliver their services and reach potential users. If you succeed at doing this research engagement is never a problem, but an outcome.

There is no one golden path to becoming more effective as a Research Management Office but to get there, it is necessary to reflect on your reason to be. Translate that into a mission and implement it in ‘doable’ bits. The proposals I have made within this article may provide some inspiration.

Be accessible and easy to find, listen to your users, service them as the internal customers they are and become the best-known secret among researchers on campus!

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