Building the Ideal Support Office

RESEARCHconnect @EARMA Digital Conference 2020: Supporting Researchers and Building the Ideal Research Support Office

Moderated by Simon Kerridge (University of Kent), RESEARCHconnect attended this session discussing the assistance provided to academics through Research Support Offices (RSOs), including how to develop such a service, and the profession of research administration. 

When discussing the first aspect of the session – support for academics and developing an RSO – perspectives were gained from staff at the University of Vienna, University of Bern and King’s College London. The prevailing opinion was that an RSO should act as a ‘one stop shop’ that could include pre-award and post-award support for research, as well as for aspects such as grant application preparation and financial management. 

There must be a compelling business need for the RSO. The University of Bern concluded that its support services pre-2016 were very fragmented. Putting researchers at the centre of service provision made good business sense – researchers now know that they can use a centralised service and support is targeted to their needs. It is good for the university as the process of supplying such assistance is simplified, standardised and streamlined, and can help to meet the various expectations and regulations of funders. 

Development of an RSO, as demonstrated by the University of Vienna, may follow the phases of planning, endorsement and enforcement (implementation). Decisions should be made at an early stage about: 

  • What services will be provided (eg proofreading of grant proposals, funding searches, communicating with funders etc) and, conversely, what services will not be provided.
  • How work will be prioritised (eg according to fund deadline, grant amount etc).
  • Whether it will be a free or fee-based service. (The University of Vienna offers a paid-for service, whereas the University of Bern and King’s College London offer services free at the point of entry.)
  • What performance metrics/standards will be used to assess the RSO’s success.
  • Whether RSO staff will work ‘across the board’ or specialise (eg in areas of research, financial management or grant award stage).

To start the second part of the session – a discussion concerning the research administration profession – Jeff Ritchie gave the American perspective. He is the Director of Sponsored Programs at Hamilton College, New York state, and past Chair of the Research Administrators Certification Council (RACC) and region IV of the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA).  

Ritchie spoke at length about the growth in the profession. This growth mirrors the increase in support for research (eg through the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health etc) and the tighter regulations, fiscal controls, reporting requirements and compliance/ethics procedures introduced by the US Government. 

Research administration started out in a rather disjointed manner – a ‘motley’ crew of university administrators, clerical support staff and inactive researchers were initially involved. However, professional societies like NCURA and the Society of Research Administrators International (SRAI) started to emerge in the 1950s and 60s, which helped to formalise the occupation (despite debates about whether it could be classed as a profession!). Professional development for research administrators in the US is delivered through NCURA and SRAI, and there are Master’s degree opportunities and certificate/certification programmes. 

The session finished with a discussion around European and Japanese perspectives on RSOs with representatives from Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Spain) and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. 

In Japan, the certification process is in a trial phase and differs slightly from the methods used in Europe (the workshop and essay-based Certificate in Research Management - CRM) and the United States (the exam-based Certified Research Administrator - CRA). The Japanese system is focusing on developing numerous different skillsets through the provision of courses at different levels, with candidate interviews acting as a final step. The process is managed by Research Manager and Administrator Network Japan (RMAN-J), which has only been operating since 2015. 

Research management and administration in Japan has expanded for a number of reasons – mainly investment and support from the Japanese Government and general promotion and uptake within Japanese universities. This is in marked contrast to the more ‘ad-hoc’ nature of growth in research administration in Europe, which was predominantly a response to funder requirements, EU regulations and the presence of numerous large European funding bodies. Indeed, RSOs are still being set up in some European universities. It was the opinion of the speaker from Universitat Rovira i Virgili that US-style official certification/Master’s level opportunities should be implemented within Europe.


Further coverage of the 2020 EARMA Digital Conference is available in October’s RESEARCHconnect Monthly Roundup


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