Survey of Academic Staff at QMUL

PIRLS - no bkgdFollowing up from my post last month about CROS, this month I’d like to state the case for the analogous survey for Academic Staff at QMUL. The Principal Investigator and Research Leaders Survey (PIRLS) gathers views and experiences from academic staff (lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, and professors) who lead on research, either individually or as part of a research group, as well as those who supervise postgraduate students.  The questions are composed through a collaborative effort between Vitae, RCUK, HEFCE, researchers, and researcher developers from across the UK HE sector.

We will run PIRLS at QMUL simultaneously with CROS throughout May 2017.

As a caveat, in acknowledgement to my humanities and social science (HSS) researcher colleagues who feel alienated by the term ‘principal investigator’ (due to its prevalence of use in the sciences), I ask you to focus instead on ‘research leaders’.  In saying that, I also know that research tends to be much less driven by groups in HSS disciplines, so even though HSS academics may not identify as ‘group leaders’ either, I would argue that there are other ways that they lead on research.  They may do so for their own (individual) research agendas, by mentoring or supervising research students, or by contributing to the leadership of their academic departments, for example.  That said, perhaps the choice of survey name may also reflect a more interesting (and less contentious) acronym than something like the Academic Staff Survey (I’ll leave you do the maths there…)

PIRLS is both a shorter and newer survey than its research staff counterpart, but by and large covers much of the same areas, and will help to similarly inform QMUL, the rest of the HE sector, and research funders about experiences and career development of Academic Staff in the UK HE sector. It also serves as a valuable tool for those of us who work to develop research staff who have goals to pursue an academic career on where to focus those efforts.

In addition to this, the feedback collected in both CROS and PIRLS provide longitudinal survey instruments that can be compared to a national benchmarks.  This makes them a very powerful source of information for a variety of initiatives including the European HR Excellence in Research Award and the Equality Challenge Unit’s Gender and Race Equality Charters.

With the last run of PIRLS in 2015, our response rate was almost two-and-a-half-times that (n=92) from its inaugural run at QMUL in 2013 (n=38).  With this increase, along with CROS data, we were able to provide data for QMUL’s Silver Athena SWAN submission in November 2016.  In addition, this data was also fed up to Faculty executives and the VP of Research.

Our goal for 2017 is to increase the response to both surveys further still, enabling individual departmental Athena submissions to benefit from this feedback, but also to enable QMUL to be able to understand where efforts are needed to address issues in our academic developmental pipeline.  As such, starting in April you’ll see advertisements in your Schools and Institutes, together with email in your inboxes from myself, your Athena SWAN SAT members and your research administrators.  I ask you to take a moment (less than 20 minutes) and provide us with your experiences and feedback as a member of QMUL academic staff.

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Researchers: Survey Time is Coming Soon!

cros-logo-high-res-background-deletedBiennially, QMUL and the rest of the UK HE sector reach out to our respective researcher communities to collect vital information and feedback on the UK researcher experience.  This takes the form of three surveys, each aimed at a different rung of the academic ladder.

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) is organised by the HEA and administered locally by the Doctoral College.  As the name implies, it surveys postgraduate researchers and will run in the Spring of 2017.

The other two surveys, The Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) and the Principal Investigator and Research Leaders Survey (PIRLS), are organised by Vitae  and use a question set compiled through a collaborative effort between Vitae, RCUK, HEFCE, researchers, and researcher developers from across the UK HE sector.  These are administered at QMUL by the Researcher Development Team and will run simultaneously throughout the month of May, 2017.

CROS is aimed at research staff, postdocs and early-career researchers who have not yet undertaken an academic research leadership role. This group includes technical and support research staff, as well as staff primarily employed on teaching contracts who conduct research in addition to those duties.

PIRLS gathers views and experiences from academic staff (lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, and professors) who lead research, either individually or as part of a research group, as well as those who supervise postgraduate students.

Broadly, the feedback from these survey has informed a number of services, processes, and initiatives, while providing the sector with an important longitudinal benchmark to ensure each HEI continues to strive to provide a supportive environment to enable junior researchers’ career prosperity during their time in the HE sector and beyond. These include initiatives like the European HR Excellence in Research Award, which was renewed for QMUL last year.  This award is externally-reviewed, and ensures that QMUL continues to implement the tenets of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.

Research Staff feedback through CROS 2015 and a series of related focus groups with researchers that ran in the summer of 2015 helped to inform our HR Excellence action plan, resulting in:

  • A new centralised postdoctoral mentoring scheme (that will recruit again next year).
  • An expanding researcher development programme: we collect information about the sorts of support you would like from the Researcher Development Team and use this to shape our programme moving forward. This section of the survey is slightly expanded this year.
  • The creation of the QMUL Research Staff Association, giving researchers a louder voice in the university’s decision-making processes. Email: qrsa@qmul.ac.uk to participate!

The response from CROS 2015 surveyed about 20% of the postdoctoral researcher community and was well-distributed across all faculties. Our goal for 2017 is to increase our response from all academic units across the university.  A more robust response not only gives a better sample of the opinions of researchers across the institution, but can help to inform both institutional and departmental Equality Challenge Unit Charter efforts like Athena SWAN.  If you’re involved in your School’s Athena SWAN submission and want to discuss how CROS and PIRLS can help, please email me (resdev [at] qmul [dot] ac [dot] uk).

I encourage you as research staff at QMUL feedback to us via CROS, so please do keep an eye out for when the calls open in May.

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The Case for Offline Postdoctoral Mentoring

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Most attempts to define the concept of mentoring come to a broad consensus that involves the transfer of “knowledge, social capital, psycho-social support […] between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the mentee, or protégé)”.  Thus in the context of postdocs and UK Higher Education (HE), more experienced academics would transfer the knowledge of conducting academic research in the UK (e.g. how to apply for funding, how to manage people), to postdoctoral researchers, who are establishing themselves in their respective disciplines.  The social capital referred to in this definition could be experiential knowledge from working in a particular field or academic unit within a university, or the introduction to a particular network of researchers.  Finally, psycho-social support usually comes via an empathetic listening and experiential or anecdotal information communicated by the mentor as an example of how certain issues like confidence, and work-life balance, for example, can be dealt with as one progresses from early-career researcher to a research leader in HE.

In the UK, the progression from postgraduate to Professor is one experienced by relatively few who qualify as PhDs. Synthesising data from a number of national research bodies and organisations from 2003-2009, The Royal Society posited that approximately 30% of science PhDs proceed on to some form of postdoctoral and early-career researcher training.  Only about 12% of those advance to permanent academic staff (lecturer, senior lecturer, reader), and only about 13% of those advance to professorial posts.  In other words, for every 1000 PhDs qualified in the UK, only five will go on to hold higher level faculty positions.  Putting that in terms of QMUL’s postdoc population, of the current 450(ish…) science postdocs, only 54 are likely to advance to a permanent academic post, while only seven will make it as far as a professorial post.

Source: The Royal Society, 2010.

Source: The Royal Society, 2010.

If we only look at the progression for female academics, the numbers describe what is referred to as the “leaky” pipeline.  Thirty-five percent (35%) of science-PhD graduates are women, however this number lowers about 25% at the lecturer/reader stage and lowers again to 11% by the professorial stage (The Royal Society, 2010).  So of those seven QMUL postdocs who will go on to professorial posts, only one would be a woman.

One obvious limitation is the number of open posts available at any one time, thus, a relatively large number of postdoctoral and ECRs will be competing for a relatively limited number of permanent academic posts, leading to a great surplus of researchers who will pursue other avenues. A number of these researchers, particularly male research staff, are also making proactive choices to leave HE, transferring their skills to other sectors.  This is what compelled a recommendation that more (supported) postdoctoral fellowships be made available to attempt to curb the ‘brain-drain’ from the academic sector as well as more transferable skills-based training for researchers. These sentiments haven’t changed much from the Roberts’ Report (2002), which highlighted these systemic issues in UK HE, and reported a lack of employability support and transferable skills training for early-career researchers.

A practical attempt to incentivise more postdoctoral researchers into academic futures came from the UK research councils (RCUK; soon to be UKRI); insisting in 2014 funding rounds, that fellows be offered clearer and achievable avenues into entry-level academic positions following the term of the fellowship. Since their 2015 calls, RCUK postdoctoral fellowships were re-branded as ‘leadership fellowships’; requiring that applicants give significant consideration to their development plans as future research leaders.  A trend that has spread to many other funding schemes, and not just those aimed at postdocs, research funders are prioritising the researcher’s development plan, meaning that in addition to a good research plan, researchers often need to consider how they will use the funding window to get themselves to the next stage in their career.

Postdoctoral researchers will usually have a research supervisor (line manager) whose responsibilities will include their career development.  At QMUL, these responsibilities are framed around our appraisal scheme, and less formal avenues.  In most cases, this relationship forms the primary source of career support for burgeoning academic researchers. However, as this relationship is ultimately tied to the progress of a research project (and perhaps funding for that very position), the developmental advice given may not be completely impartial.

This isn’t to say that one cannot gain tremendously from a strong relationship with one’s postdoctoral research supervisor, however having a second channel of open, impartial and confidential offline support to discuss issues that may arise with one’s line manager, for example, is an invaluable supplementary resource.  Scheduled mentor sessions give developing researchers and mentors themselves the opportunity for self-reflection.  The added value of a different academic’s counsel on development within the wider discussion of career aspirations provides the postdoc with a greater breadth of first-hand experience to inform future decisions.  Moreover, if one were to subscribe to the mentor-protégé model more popular in the US, then a second mentor could bring about the exposure to potentially different networks, opening avenues of future discourse and potential collaboration for both postdocs and mentors.

Mentoring can be instrumental in conveying explicit career knowledge (e.g. research-output expectations or forming research networks) while enhancing implicit knowledge about the less-obvious but still vital aspects of academic professionalism, ethics and values. In many cases, mentors also provide emotional support and encouragement. Many postdocs, whether fellows or contract researchers are often hired for a specific project that defines their focus, as it will likely be the source of any much needed research outputs.  However there are other domains of skills that come from interactions with more senior academics. A researcher needs to do to build and maintain collaborative relationships; understand their funding landscape; consider research impact; understand how to navigate institutional politics and gender bias; to name only four examples of the sort of knowledge a mentor could help impart to a developing researcher. Also, when mentored postdocs were asked about their experiences, they generally perceived that time spent with a mentor had been beneficial to their career progression, as they felt more supported in making critical decisions.

The benefit also extends to the mentors.  Mentors report an increase in productivity, career satisfaction, and personal gratification. Building a strong mentor-mentee relationship facilitates reflection time for the mentor themselves providing them with increased self- awareness and a longer-term vision of how mentoring influenced their personal, cognitive, and professional growth.

So, with my soap-box away, I turn your attention to the three approaches to postdoc mentoring being trailed at QMUL from 2017.

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The Research Excellence Framework: What’s it all about?

Our next Academic Progressions Webinar:

The Research Excellence Framework: What’s it all about?

Taking place Monday 21 November 2016 – 13:00-14:00

This webinar will cover the basics of how the REF assessment works, the potential benefits and costs at an institutional and individual level and the likely changes to be implemented following the recently published Stern Review. Emma and Dave will explain how you can prepare yourself as an early career researcher in terms of the REF requirements for outputs and research impact.

Presented by: Dr Emma Hare (Executive Officer Research and International, QMUL) and David Steynor (Research Impact Manager, Business Development Office, QMUL)

To book a place, please go to the CAPD Bookings Page (cpdbookings.qmul.ac.uk), login and search for course code RSAP. Once you have booked you will receive a confirmation email within 1 working-day with the necessary information to join the webinar.  If you do not yet have an account, you can register here.

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The Transformative Potential of Research

I speak with a lot of a researchers who resent the Impact agenda. One popular opinion posits that the exercises we use to predict or evaluate impact distract them from the work itself. I think this is in part due to the fact that the narrative surrounding ‘impact’ in the academic research community has been a little myopic and focussed on only a subset of potential impacts that research might have in society. It is however changing, as the framework we use to evaluate the impact of completed research on a national level is being prompted to reconsider how we interpret research impact.

It could be that some of the informed opinion that fed into Stern was influenced by a movement that is very much part of the global research zeitgeist: Responsible Research and Innovation or RRI.  RRI takes that research has a transformative potential (and thus has impact) on society as a basic assumption.

Its philosophy encompasses various agendas that are already well-embedded within the academy’s research culture, including public engagement, open access, gender equality, science education, ethics, and governance.  However the RRI moment seeks to bring these together, and more specifically, seeks to encourage researchers to consider a more holistic approach to engaging society in research, even in its planning stages, its production, its governance, and its dissemination so that a broad range of stakeholders (including the public) have the opportunity to feed into various parts of the process, and enabling it to respond better to society’s needs.

As part of this month’s ‘in a couple of minutes’ video series, we look at RRI, and specifically the European portal for RRI practitioners and resources: RRI tools (www.rri-tools.eu).  Here you will find a database of contacts, resources, tools, and training opportunities that you can use to consider how you might adopt more of this impact philosophy in your research planning and practice.

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All ‘in a couple of minutes’ videos are available on QMPlus, in the research staff development section. If you’ve not accessed this content before, you will be prompted to login using your QMUL credentials first, and then follow the prompts to auto-enrol into the section.  It is open to all QMUL staff and students.

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Vitae Resources

Vitae is a UK organisation that is very active in the higher education sector. They offer support and resources for academic researchers, as they develop from PhD students, through postdoctoral stages, and beyond the academy.

Their website has a wealth of helpful advice to help inform your career development and decisions. As part of our ‘in a couple of minutes’ video series this month, we profile the resources available through their website, vitae.ac.uk.

You can watch the video along with the others in the series on QMplus, in the research staff section. There you will also find content related to workshops and events that the CAPD organises for research staff. If you have not accessed the section before, you will be prompted to auto-enrol. If you have not accessed QMplus before, you will be prompted for your QMUL credentials to log in.

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The REF: Sternly reviewed

As a postdoc at QMUL in the time leading up to last Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, I picked up on a certain unease amongst academics, one that I didn’t notice in the run up to its predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 2008.  The REF is an “evolved” version of the RAE, whose major adaptation involved an evaluation of the economic and societal impacts of academic research. This threw many researchers for a loop as before this, associating their efforts with any sort of ‘impact’ outside the academy was a very different exercise; one usually tied to funding applications.  In addition to the impact assessment, the REF also looks at an institution’s research outputs (e.g. publications), and the research environment that an institution creates to support and promote research. The resultant rankings from the REF inform the allocation of block grants to UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) from the four HE Funding councils.

REF2014: Quick Results Summary

REF2014: Quick Results Summary

The impact section in the REF, worth 20% of the final assessment, asked researchers to write up a case study that identified the ‘real world problem’ tied to their research along with how the results worked towards a solution of that problem, identify the people who benefitted most from that research, and attempt to quantify the “reach” and significance of the research product that extended beyond the discipline itself.  Essentially, this exercise is retrospective and demands a quantitative or qualitative assessment of socio-economic impacts tied to specific research outputs. There have been many pieces written that take a critical view of this approach to assessing research impact, so I won’t go into much detail here.

Much of the unease I originally spoke of in the lead-up to the REF came about because this sort of exercise had never really been demanded of academic researchers, en masse. Collecting data on how your research might be impactful is a different stream of research in and of itself; one as onerous as writing up a PhD thesis, according to some.  On the plus side, mechanisms for collecting such information now form part of the research planning process, suggesting that any subsequent REFs should be less burdensome in that respect.  Moreover, the sector now has a growing and publicly searchable database of case studies that document the wide and varied benefits of the UK’s investment in HE research.

Lessons learned

Despite its criticisms, the REF (and however it may evolve from here on in) is here to stay. To attempt to learn from the initial run and inform future iterations of the exercise, Lord Stern was commissioned by the Minister for Universities and Science to review the UK’s approach to research excellence.  Released in July 2016, The Stern Report: Building on Success and Learning from Experience used 40 interviews and over 300 submissions of feedback from participating researchers and HEIs to identify several major problem areas with REF2014. These were:

  • problems of cost, demotivation, and stress associated with the selectivity of staff submitted to the REF
  • strengthening the focus on the contributions of Units of Assessment (subject areas) and universities as a whole, thus fostering greater cohesiveness and collaboration and allowing greater emphasis on a body of work from a unit or institution rather than narrowly on individuals
  • widening and deepening the notion of impact to include influence on public engagement, culture and teaching as well as policy and applications more generally
  • reducing the overall cost of the work involved in assessment, costs that fall in large measure on universities and research institutions
  • helping to support excellence wherever it is found (i.e. not just within larger research-focused HEIs)
  • helping to tackle the underrepresentation of interdisciplinary research in the REF
  • provide for a wider and more productive use of the data and insights from the assessment exercise for both the institutions and the UK as a whole

The report details twelve recommendations that should, by and large, help to address many of the issues identified in the previous approach.

One thing that did seem to be largely missing from this report were recommendations related to the “negative influences” from such an exercise, sentiments that received strong and very strong support in the feedback responses that informed it (see below).  Perhaps this has to with what I mentioned earlier about the REF (or some analogous exercise to it) being here to stay, but Stern’s Report spoke only of the exercise and the overall impact agenda as necessities and as positive influences in the sector and didn’t really capture much of the “voice of dissent” that is clear throughout much of the HE press and blogosphere. (One such example can be found here.) Whatever your stance on impact, some have spoken favourably of the REF’s impact case studies and how they may have influenced the decision to begin to correct the UK’s yearly research expenditure for inflation that came about in the 2015 spending review.

Excerpt from Synthesis of Call for Evidence

Excerpt from table from the synthesis of responses submitted to the REF review Call for Evidence

Some very positive recommendations that the Stern Report made involved a significant shift in how the REF assesses impact.  The first suggests that each HEI should provide a unified statement on research environment and impact that would detail an institution’s ethos with respect to “high quality research and research-related activities, […] support for interdisciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives and impact.”  REF2014 involved a research environment template for each subject area, which led to a fair amount of repetition as these approaches would often be replicated across many different units of a university, for example. So this using this approach, each HEI’s submission stands to be more streamlined which is useful to both those who prepare the submissions and those who review them.

The second recommendation I wanted to highlight involved the broadening of how the term impact should be interpreted; that it “need not solely focus on socio-economic impacts, but should also include impact on government policy, on public engagement and understanding, on cultural life, on academic impacts outside the field and on impacts on teaching”. The significance here is a formal recognition that different disciplines lend themselves to different forms of research impact.  Moreover in promoting interdisciplinary work, it is essential that panellists who review REF submissions also view the forms of impact from this more comprehensive perspective.

Thirdly, and this goes hand-in-hand with the previous recommendation, impact case studies “could be linked to a research activity and a body of work as well as broad range of research outputs.” Whereas the last REF required that case studies be linked to specific outputs, this suggestion broadens that scope to include situations where an investigator or group’s expertise has been influential, but isn’t specifically traceable, in a linear sort of way, to any one particular output.

Each of the twelve recommendations is itself a composite of several sub-recommendations, so even the two that I highlight here have other facets worthy of further exploration – but that’s why the CAPD offers a workshop on research impact (keep an eye out for 2016/17 offerings!)

Other recommendations deal with more logistical flaws in the approach used in 2014, addressing loopholes that allowed HEIs “to game” or manipulate their REF submissions to paint a more favourable picture, for example. These, as well as others, including the portability of certain research outputs from one institution to another, will be discussed in my next post.

Quick Links:

  1. The Stern Report: Building on Success and Learning from Experience
  2. Research Excellence Framework (REF) review: synthesis of responses submitted to the REF review call for evidence and follow-up interviews

edited: 18/08/2016

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UK Research Funding and Culture, post Brexit

Brexit GraphicI think it’s fair to say that the June 23 Referendum result took the academic community by surprise. Arguably, even many outside the academy were surprised by it and even remorseful of this result.  This included former Prime Minister David Cameron who weeks before the vote smugly warned those from the Leave campaign that they would have to accept the results if Britain voted to remain, and Nigel Farage who wasn’t optimistic as polls closed on the evening of the 23rd. However, the academic research community was particularly winded by the results, as outside of Scotland it was the larger urban centres and the homes to our institutes of higher education (HE) that voted overwhelmingly to remain.

UK arts and culture, together with the HE sector have all benefited tremendously from our relationship with the EU. The freedom of movement for artists, students, HE staff, and researchers has made the whole of Europe a crucible of cultural and scientific creativity, promoting the free exchange of ideas. This freedom of movement has been a key ingredient in helping establish the collaborative research networks that have propelled Europe to its place as a hub for scientific exploration and innovation according to a recent UNESCO report.

The phrase ‘punching above its weight’ gets used often when speaking about the UK’s return on investment into EU research funding structures, and the UK’s overall position in global higher education and research in relation to its population size and GDP. In the previous European research and development funding framework programme (FP7 – between 2007 and 2013) the UK contributed €5.4bn and received €8.8bn in funds; coming second only to Germany. The UK ranked first, receiving 22.4% of research funding allocated to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the European Research Council (ERC) funding. For context, this figure represented 3% of the UK’s total R&D expenditure for that period, or approximately 27% of the funds received from UK research councils. Five of our HEIs ranked in the top 10 of overall participation within the HE sector, and four of our HEIs ranked in the top 10 for ERC Grants. In the current European funding framework, Horizon 2020, the UK has managed to keep its edge, coming up on top in terms of the number of projects awarded.

In the lead-up to the Referendum, the British Council commissioned a set of essays from artists, historians, writers, scientists, communicators, leaders and academics, titled The Morning After, which described the importance of Europe to its cultural and science sectors. Starting with a piece from Martin Roth, the Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the collection is realistic, visceral, and optimistic,

“As a formal union, the EU may not have lived up to expectations. But as a cultural union, Europe is unrivalled. The United Kingdom – and London – is the beating heart of this Europe that I know and love. London simply could not be London without the constant exchange of people, art and ideas that flows across the continent.”

It champions the collaborative spirit in Europe from many perspectives, while also exploring some of more xenophobic rhetoric involved in the nationalist sentiment that has become increasingly reported in the media, especially in the final days leading up to and following the June 23rd vote. Bidisha, a broadcaster and journalist wrote,

“Britain has a certain amount of repair work to do in terms of its cultural relations. We must show that we are not fatally mired in fond, monoracial memories of greatness which begin with Beowulf and end with Virginia Woolf, taking in William the Conqueror and William Morris along the way. We must show that we are not culturally arrogant philistines who only want to play in the great communal sandpit if we can be the leader and call the shots or be favoured by the powerful players – or only play with those who are exactly like ourselves.”

It is this last sentiment and its increasing prevalence in media headlines that is most concerning, and it seems there has had a knock-on effect in the HE sector: some academics have threatened to leave the UK due to this rising tide of xenophobia. Reports are also starting to emerge of growing anxieties amongst EU students and academic staff in the UK, as the home office has not yet provided much reassurance to current and future students regarding their continued welcome.  Organisations like Universities UK and The Russell Group have issued statements assuaging concerns of those in or due to arrive in the UK that things will continue as usual, and for the time being the UK will continue to participate in programmes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus.  However, anecdotal reports of being treated differently by European partners and peer reviewers have already emerged, and a confidential survey of Russell Group Universities by The Guardian “found cases of British academics being asked to leave EU-funded projects or to step down from leadership roles because they are considered a financial liability”, suggesting that irrespective of the lack of any actual change, that UK researchers are being treated with a certain uneasiness.

It could be that this wave of anxiety is fuelled by the current state of uncertaintyArticle 50 has not yet been triggered, and in fact, Parliament is due to debate the issue of a second referendum in September. So despite pressure from EU countries for the UK to make up its mind, we remain in our post-referendum limbo.  Theresa May, the only Tory candidate left standing to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister following his resignation, has assured that a Brexit is an inevitable future.

Beyond that, for the time being, very little else seems certain. The post-Brexit picture of research funding painted by Dr Mike Galsworthy, the Programme Director of Scientists for the EU, is not a glorious one. Using both Norway and Switzerland as case studies for how Britain might access European funding in the future still rely greatly on a certain freedom of movement; a huge sticking point for the government who will negotiate our future with the single market. In addition, as non-EU countries, they have varying access to Horizon 2020 funding, but they have no say in decisions of EU funding priorities. 

As a final thought, which was underscored by a sentiment in The Morning After essay from Johannes Ebert, there is a clear disconnect that has emerged between the majorities who reside in the blue and yellow patches in the UK.  “Perhaps the referendum will turn out to be the event that gives rise to important discussions […] not only in the UK but throughout Europe!”  Perhaps, in times to come, these discussions will provide the framework for greater harmony between the people who live in those patches of blue and yellow as well as a more stable understanding between the UK and the EU.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of QMUL or the CAPD.  I have endeavoured to present facts from as comprehensive a group of sources as possible, but welcome any comment or contrasting opinions.  

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QMUL retains its HR Excellence in Research Award

HRExlogoQMUL has retained its HR Excellence in Research Award, along with 13 other UK Higher Education Institutions, following an external review of our policies and efforts to support the development of our research staff.

Professor Bill Spence, the Vice-Principal for Research, welcomed the news, saying “I’m delighted to see this continued recognition of the collective work of our researchers, academics, and development and HR professionals, ensuring that QMUL remains a great place to build research careers. HR Excellence is not only a badge of honour as far as the European Research Area is concerned, but identifies Queen Mary as a global institution that takes a strong, holistic approach to researcher development.”

In 2015, a working group comprised of research staff from all faculties, academic and professional services staff developed QMUL’s 2016 Action Plan, which had eight primary action points which will be the focus of our efforts over the next two years and beyond.  These are discussed in greater detail here.

Amongst these actions will be the establishment of Queen Mary Postdoc Association (QPdA).  This group will be a network of postdoctoral researchers from all Schools and Institutes across the College intended to give our 500+ research staff community a voice in the decision making process at QMUL.  The QPdA will be putting out a call for representation later on this summer with a goal to meet for the first time early in the 2016/17 academic year.

The HR Excellence in Research Award is a European Commission award that recognises an institution’s alignment in policy and practice to the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for Recruitment. In the UK, the process incorporates both the QAA Quality Code for Higher Education – Chapter B11: Research Degrees and the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, and it includes an initial gap analysis and robust action plan that is internally reviewed at the 2-year mark, and then progress and future plans are externally reviewed at the 4-year mark by an international panel organised by Vitae.

Though recent events in the UK raise questions as to how the British research community will continue to interact with the European Research Area on a policy and funding level, Vitae assures that currently, “the UK is still a member of the European Union and Vitae will continue to manage the UK process for the HR Excellence in Research Award as normal. When the overall situation becomes clearer in terms of whether or how the UK will interact with the European Research Area, the Concordat Strategy Group will work with the European Commission to agree the UK’s future participation in the HR Excellence in Research Award.”

More information about the Concordat and the HR Excellence in Research Award is available via the CAPD’s Researcher Development webpages.

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Building relationships to inform government policy

One of the keys to a successful academic career is networking. Did you hear that? It was barely audible; the sound of academic disengagement. It’s not the full on (academic) disgust that you hear when someone presents already published research at a conference – for the second year in a row. Often academic disgust is clearly audible to the human ear, with vocalisations ranging from to the tsk, to the low-range “huff”; a slightly forced exhalation through the nostrils.  Disengagement is more subtle and is often accompanied by an eye-roll. I’m familiar with it, as I see this behaviour in my workshops or my coaching sessions with researchers whenever networking is mentioned.

Disengagement with network-building activities may be tied into a fear that some younger academics possess when approaching someone in a relative position of power (or experience); it may feel like begging for help.  Many would argue, however, that networking is an essential part of building your academic profile; that you should be “shameless, but not rude” and that “any (positive) way of getting yourself known is a good thing”.

Some junior academics think that a firm commitment to the quality and integrity of their research will get them sufficiently noticed and sufficiently respected (read: cited).  Quite frankly, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong in thinking this – both are essential parts of being an academic researcher, but not what I’m going to focus on in this post.  In addition to these, today’s academic has to consider how their research results – or message, if you will – attain reach beyond their discipline’s bubble. In this post, I’m going to consider the academic networking from a specific perspective:  How, as a researcher, might you go about trying to inform and influence government policy?

This was the topic for discussion at a recent panel discussion, hosted by the Mile End InstituteHow to advise government? Routes into the policy making process. The panel was chaired by Graeme Reid (Professor of Science and Research Policy, UCL), and consisted of Halima Khan (Executive Director, Health Lab, Nesta), Joana Chataway (Research Group Director, Innovation, Health and Science, RAND Europe) and Tadj Oreszczyn (Professor and Director, The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, UCL).  The panel spoke from their direct experience in helping to inform environmental, health, and energy policy in the UK and abroad, with a mind to providing practical advice to those who are less experienced at working with policy makers.

Policy, framed in the RCUK vernacular, is a major “pathway to impact.”  In the last REF exercise, over half of the (publicly available) impact case studies  touched on some way in which UK research informed some manner of home or foreign policy. However, though the importance of a particular line of research may seem obvious to the academic who worked on it, getting that message across to those who make and shape policy isn’t always the most obvious process.

Clarity and Accessibility
First and foremost, politicians aren’t often researchers. Thus, even before considering the channels available to get your research results to those in positions of influencing policy, we need to think about how and when this message is communicated.

We are accustomed, in our little research microcosms, to discussing our work using an idiom that is usually  jargon-rich as it can make communication between peers more efficient and specific. Research involves some rather complex topics, and though we as researchers should not fear the use of appropriate jargon, we can’t expect that someone from outside our respective microcosms is as well versed in our professional vernacular as we are. Moreover, when explaining the research it may also be necessary to first set the stage: Why is research in this area important? What has it told us so far? What do the methods used and design of the research tell us about our confidence in the findings? What is the “real-world impact” of these results?  Taken together, communication of research that might influence policy needs to be performed in a language that is accessible to policy makers.  As summarised by Prof. Reid, the policy world often “uses the languages of law and economics”, and thus researchers may need to think about re-framing their work in those terms.

Timing and Profile
Getting your research results to inform discussions on policy is a slightly different issue.  Our biggest priority as academics usually involves publishing and disseminating in academic or even discipline-specific circles. With an effective public engagement strategy, however, research that is deemed important within a discipline can get media coverage.  This, when coupled with effective use of social media and academic-led discussion sites like The Conversation, is one way to achieve reach in the public sphere.  If dissemination of your research is well-timed with issues that are current governmental priorities, this is a viable avenue to informing policy.  A message championed by Prof. Lee Badget, an economist whose research has informed policy impacting the LGBTQ community in the US, suggests (as paraphrased by Richard Joyner in the THE) that “influencing policy is to persuade others to add us to their networks.”  So if your timing isn’t in perfect sync with the political climate, you might have to ramp up your persistence; persuading those who reform policy that yours is a voice to be heard in the discussion.

In other instances, the policy sphere seeks consultation directly from researchers to inform ongoing policy reform. This may take the form of an open public consultation, as with the recent green paper on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework.  Response to these consultations can come from individuals or via groups like learned societies, policy institutes (aka.think tanks“), or non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  Government will also form Select Committees to address specific issues via enquiries.

Policy makers and members of Select Committees may also seek more direct and informal advice from researchers, either within the academy or via associated groups, as the absorptive capacity of government isn’t what it might have been in less austere times, a point made by several of the panellists in response to two audience questions during this MEI forum.

So how do you go about making sure you’re amongst ‘the consulted’?

Networking, Relationships and Persistence
Here’s where that dirty word comes back again. Networking is all about forming relationships. Cultivating relationships with policy makers as well as with the various groups that mediate the interface between researchers and the policy makers are essential.  This can take the form of joining and becoming active within a learned society that is relevant to your research. If you’re in the earlier stages of your career, consider forming connections with other academics who inform policy in your discipline, and think about how you might use the media, social and otherwise, to promote your profile and help you to forge those connections with other groups at the research-policy interface.

While social networking and online media are all tremendously useful in promoting your research and profile, they cannot replace face-to-face networking.  Some business leaders, though active in their online networking, remain unconvinced as to its power: how does thousands or tens-of-thousands of ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ actually translate into real influence?  There is an added level of credibility imparted by non-verbal communication when we meet with people face-to-face.

When I asked Halima Khan how a burgeoning academic should go about forging these networks, she suggested that a certain level of both gregariousness and persistence are required.  Academics should actively seek out NGOs and other organisations that deal with the particular field they work in; making efforts to attend open events like ones that the MEI put on for example, in order to make these valuable connections. Perhaps on top of attending these events, a certain level of preparation and strategy are needed: who do you need to meet and why? Think about your elevator pitch carefully; factoring in your audience, your message and its impact (as you see it). And above all, don’t give up.  If you don’t make the connection you hope for, try again or try someone else in the organisation.

The Take Home Message on How to Advise Policy

  • Have a clear narrative in accessible language
  • Communicate the confidence levels with your research evidence
  • Consider the timing of your research with respect to government priorities
  • Form and nurture relationships with the policy sphere
  • Cultivate your research profile, both in person and online
  • If you want to be heard: be persistent

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