Looking backwards

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes have changed, and will continue to change. 


Philosophical Transactions: giving some account of the present understanding, studies and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world. Volume 1, for years 1665 and 1666.

Frontispiece of Philosophical Transactions, by Henry Oldenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

More and more research material is either being produced as digital objects or are being digitised. I can see the first copy of Philosophical Transactions from my desk. Open licensing means that more and more of this material can be shared.

However, when it comes to the administration of this research, it is a different matter.

I tried to look up a grant that the Australian Research Council (ARC) gave out in 1999 (20 years ago). I just wanted the bare minimum – title, participants and amount awarded (bonus points for years funded). It wasn’t on the ARC’s website. They are best of breed, but their database only covers grants awarded from 2001 onwards. I finally found it because one of the people involved had published their CV online, and had listed the details of the grant.

That is because this grant belonged to the Age of Paper. Now, we live in a digital age.

We have forgotten (or were born too young to know) that we used to submit grant applications on paper. Hands up all those people who remember physically counting the pages of a grant application before you made ten copies of it and then physically posted it (or, deadlines and academics being what they are, couriered it) to the funding agency.

We live in the age of The Great Digitising: that period after digitising everything became possible, but before everything was actually digitised. So, there are lacunae, or blank spots, like the ARC’s database of grants, which covers most but not all of what they have funded. The weird thing about the blank spots is that they are mostly in the recent past. Really early stuff, like Philosophical Transactions, have been digitised. Journals and source documents in the last 50 years? Not so much (generally because of copyright issues). Grant applications that are 20 years old? Not at all!

I was looking for that grant application because one of my academics (who wasn’t part of the original grant) wanted to build on that work. They will be applying with the same industry partner, to the scheme that is the successor to the funding scheme that funded the work 20 years ago. Read more of this post

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The value of real relationships in research development

Lachlan Smith is Co-Director of Cloud Chamber.

He supports small and specialist institutions to develop their research culture, environment and income through strategy development and one to one research proposal support for academics. Clients include Newman, Leeds Trinity and Harper Adams Universities. He previously worked in research development at the University of Warwick as well as roles in the civil service, local government and economic development consultancy.

Lachlan is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the School of Business, University of Leicester. He tweets from @HEresearchfund.


Research support professionals are always on the lookout for good practice. I should know, I’m one of them.

A common way to do this is to attend relevant conferences, and one of the largest of these – INORMS – took place in Edinburgh in early June.

Photo from @ARMA_UK's #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

Photo from @ARMA_UK’s #INORMS2018 Twitterstream | twitter.com/arma_uk/status/927834525173997568

INORMS brings together well over one thousand people who work in research management globally. Around half were from the UK with the rest coming from North America, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe.

These conferences are always an opportunity to catch up with old colleagues, forge new partnerships and projects and find out how the profession is changing and developing across the world.

So, what did I learn over the three days? Well, if I am honest, I don’t feel like I learnt anything particularly new.

It feels wrong to say that but, in reality, things don’t move too quickly in research management (as much as we might like to think they do).

That isn’t to say the conference wasn’t useful. I met some great new people and it highlighted some important issues, crystallising my thoughts in a few areas that I thought might be valuable to share in this post. Read more of this post

The price of poor grant feedback

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

Photo by Dietmar Becker | unsplash.com

There is that moment when you find out the results of a long-awaited grant round.

It can be euphoric and somewhat surreal, or it could lead to much shoulder-slumping.

Given today’s research funding environment and the success rates in major funding rounds, there’s probably more shoulder-slumping than anyone would like.

This wrenching, life-affecting result is a tough phase to get through. That’s why I wrote “Picking up the pieces“, for researchers to look ahead and get back into the grant application cycle, after the requisite, understandable period of ranting and tearing of hair.

Recently, I’ve heard several anecdotes about unsuccessful grant applications and their aftermath, and it made me want to revisit this topic. Not quite in a white-hot rage (as can be Research Whisperer’s wont), but certainly with a sustained seething.

My issue is the poor to non-existent feedback that often accompanies unsuccessful grant applications.

Read more of this post

What’s in a researcher induction kit?

"Pool of Knowledge" (Detail from the "Pool of Knowledge" sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

“Pool of Knowledge” (Detail from the “Pool of Knowledge” sculpture by Stacey Spiegel, Living Arts Park, Mississauga, Canada) Photo by Ian Muttoo | http://www.flickr.com/photos/imuttoo

When I started a new research fellowship in a new institution and city, it took me at least a semester to find my feet.

In that time, I felt the full force of ignorance as I flailed around trying to find out who should review my grant applications (beyond my own collegial networks), what I might be entitled to as a staff member, and trying to get a handle on the new university’s structure.

More importantly, I needed to spend time learning the culture of the place: the person who occupies a certain role may not be the person you’d expect to do the work, etc.

Any expectations that a new staff member (in this floundering state) is going to immediately be productive and successful are not the most realistic. Even if they’ve got grants that they’re carrying over from one place to another, there’s a lot of information that they’ll need to establish themselves.

The earlier that incoming researchers know this information, the more quickly they’ll be able to gain momentum for their research planning and writing.

For a new-to-institution researcher orientation kit, then, these are the basics that I’d include:

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Don’t be late

Table showing 23 teams completing applications. Four start 30 weeks out, the rest come in afterwards. One team starts three weeks from deadline!

Applications in a 30-week development program, from expression of interest (EoI) to withdrawal (NFA) or submission.

This diagram shows the flow of applications during a recent development round for a major government funding scheme. If you are in the US, think ‘National Science Foundation’. In the Commonwealth, think of a major Research Council funding scheme.

Have a look at Team 23, right down in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart. They started their bid at the very last minute. They didn’t make it to submission. They were late. Really late! “Why are you putting in this application” late.

I hate applications like that. Here’s why. Read more of this post

Are academics good (research) administrators?

MurielSwijghuisen-smDr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a visiting fellow at the Music, Mind and Brain Centre, Psychology Department, Goldsmiths’, University of London.

She has a doctorate in applied ethnomusicology focussing on Australian Aboriginal choral singing. Her current research looks at the relationship between music, health and wellbeing from an ethnomusicological, cross-cultural perspective.

Muriel is also a research development officer and occasional acting head of research office at Goldsmiths’, University of London. In this capacity, she oversees the University’s UK grants portfolio, sits on the University ethics committee as a full member, and works on the implementation of the UK government’s open access mandates (among a great many other things). She is on Twitter as @murielSR. Her ORCID is orcid.org/0000-0003-2337-7962.


Now, there’s a question.

Being both an academic with a doctorate who still conducts her own research whilst holding down a successful post in research administration, I might be qualified to offer a perspective.

My career trajectory also provides an immediate answer to this question, which is: ‘Yes, academics can be good (research) administrators.’

In my experience, however, academics are not all good at research administration. The reasons for this vary from a general antipathy towards engaging with what is seen to be a form of oppression and managerialism to a genuine personal inability to deal with bureaucracy.

Let’s face it: some people are just terrible at paperwork. And being terrible at paperwork tends to have very little to do with whether you are an academic or not. It’s a personality trait.

In my 09:00-17:00 administrative world, I have often come across the suggestion that ‘our academics’ (sometimes you’d think they are a different species altogether) are incapable of filling in forms accurately and in a timely fashion. Why might this be, I then wonder? I seem to manage form-filling quite well, despite my academic handicap.

Another vague and somewhat circular argument that’s put forward is that academics should not be expected to engage with administration because of their brilliant academic status. Being a Dutch social scientist based in the UK, I question whether the British class system is responsible for such attitudes here. When I spend time with my academic peers at conferences and other such events, I am regaled with tales of woe recounting the oppression, ignorance, and administrative managerialism they face. The usual culprits responsible for causing this lamentable hardship are ‘the University’ or ‘Central Services’ – whoever, or whatever, they are. The world of administration seems to be a faceless mystery to many academics.

To demystify this world a bit – my world of being an academic and administrator – I’d like to offer a more nuanced perspective.

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Free to good home – one Research Whisperer

Map of Melbourne city, showing three campuses

RMIT’s city, Brunswick and Bundoora campuses, courtesy Google Maps

I’ve just finished a ‘grand tour’ of all the Schools in our College (read “Departments in our Faculty”, depending on your terminology).

It was great! I spent three days a week, for a month at a time, working in a completely different space.

In the middle of last year, when I came back from China, I sent a note to our seven Deputy Deans (Research). It was headed ‘Free to good home – one Research Whisperer’. In it, I asked if they would be interested in hosting me for a month. They would need to provide a desk and a chair, and access to electricity and the wireless network.

In return, I would spend three days per week in their School for a month. I’d still be doing my normal work, but I’d be a visible presence and would be able to meet with their staff, etc.

I was overwhelmed with the response. One school came back literally within minutes of the post. Every other school responded positively, with the last one even expressing the fear that they might be too late, and have missed the boat.

Every school was different. Some had real difficulty finding a seat for me. Others were able to give me a room with a view. For me, it didn’t matter where I sat, as long as I was where the action was.

Being in a central unit, it is easy to be seduced by the image that the centre is the focus when, in fact, the work happens in the schools, departments, and centres. That is where the teaching and research happens. Everything else is a scaffold to support that work.

Getting back to the periphery is a very simple, very powerful way to demonstrate that you recognise that fact. This is how it worked for me:

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