Anna Grey

Many people struggle to get across the full range what their job involves but, on the whole, saying you are a nurse, lecturer or an accountant at least has people nodding as they have at least heard of them. When I say I work as a University Research Director, I get a quizzical look followed by either a question about working with students (I don’t) or what my research area is (I must cover them all, but I don’t carry out research).

I thought I’d try asking a few friends though I’m not sure ‘something researchy’ really helped. One old friend did say ‘all the bits about research management that I don’t need to worry about as I don’t work in a university. An interesting take, but again not what I was hoping for. Someone else suggested that I look after the money and try to keep the University out of the papers, which sounded like I was a fixer for a mafia family.

What I really need is a way of describing what I do in a snappy and understandable way and perhaps you can help. Let me describe what my role covers and see if you can come up with something.

First problem is that research management is a bit of a niche. Most people when you ask them about a university will think about students and teaching and then they will mention academics undertaking research. The idea that there might be administrators supporting research does seem to come as a bit of a surprise. But the bit most people understand is that it involves bidding for funding. Except, there is so much more including working out the best funder or specific funding call to put an application in, budgeting, reading the terms and conditions (so you don’t have to) and highlighting the key ones, sorting out contracts and doing all the invoicing. What many people don’t know is that when a grant is awarded, it is in fact usually just a budget and we must claim the costs incurred rather than a large cheque arriving. And yes, we do get audited on all of this, which is why we need to keep the receipts and why the research office is so fixated on making sure that what you want to spend the grant matches what you told the funder you would spend it on. Does research grant manager cover that work?

The next big chunk is governance and integrity. This is where everyone (both within universities and in government) mutter about bureaucracy, right up until the point where things aren’t going well and when everyone agrees what we really need is another policy. The difficulty is that we are constantly balancing the importance of undertaking challenging research, with the related need to champion academic freedom against the need to ensure research is undertaken in a robust and ethical manner. Whilst also meeting the (ever increasing) range of legal and compliance related requirements, which protects research participants, and that the University can defend the work if necessary. Because research findings can and do get regularly challenged, not just by fellow academics. Academic freedom is an important principle to protect, but it doesn’t mean that an academic can do what they want and working where that freedom starts and ends is often context specific. Sometimes things do go wrong and that involves the less enjoyable activity of investigating research misconduct. So, research compliance manager and enforcer?

Next comes the marketing of the University, a phrase I’m not so comfortable with. What I mean by this is supporting academics to share their research with others including to the non-academic world. The internet and online publishing have revolutionised access to research and movements such as open access publishing (publishing so that research is free to read), open data and research repositories have never made finding research easier. However, this makes tracking the outcomes of the research harder and with so much out there, how do you get noticed? Government funders have also introduced the concept of impact, which is identifying where research has had an influence beyond academia. Advising staff about how their research could be used and tracking that it has had an impact is another role. (Thankfully, I can leave working with business in the competent hands of the Knowledge Exchange Office). Shall we go for research cheer leader?

There is then the fun and exciting world of reporting. Given the large sums of public money involved in research, it is no surprise that the government and other funders would like to know how we have spent the money and what we have achieved. This is where we get into Research Excellence Framework, ResearchFish returns, HESA returns, Funding Assurance Programmes (aka an audit) and many other returns. I describe this as research data geek.

On a more positive note, one of the nicest and most fulfilling elements is the work on research culture and environment. This is nice because it involves so many other colleagues from around the University. From working with the library on open access and open research, HR on training and staff careers, academic departments on developing positive research cultures, Graduate School on integrating research students into research culture and the KE Office as there isn’t really a dividing line between research and knowledge exchange rather a continuum. How about research facilitator and advisor?

The other element is what I can best describe as academic matchmaking, that is getting to know what research areas academic staff are working on and then suggesting potential research grants they could go far, introducing them to other people working in similar areas, building links with other institutions who might be doing similar work. Some academics are very good at this and don’t need our help, but many do appreciate the introduction. Does that make me a research dating agent?

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the systems we look after, to keep track of what is going on, responding to government consultations, providing training and support, working at regional and national level to build links or work with funders or the best ways to support and fund research. Not sure how to describe that, perhaps technical supporter, and research networker?

So, unless you can come up with something snappy, I might just be stuck with a grant and compliance manager and enforcer, who is a data geek, cheer leader facilitator and advisor for research, with a side hustle of dating agent, networking, and technical support. Let’s see if that gets a better response to ‘So what do you do?’