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  • Dr Karen Clegg

The Sword in the Stone - developing principal investigators

Dr Karen Clegg is Head of Research Excellence Training at the University of York and is a member of Researchers14 but is writing in a personal capacity as someone who has devoted the best part of 15 years to researcher development.

Once upon a time, researchers in universities and research organisations were like the squires of old; expected to support the knight to whom they were affiliated and take on any duties asked of them as part of their apprenticeship. Once their knowledge, skills and values were proven they were ‘dubbed’ as an independent knight and respected in their own right. Sound familiar?

The structural context in which early career researchers presently work hasn’t changed very much from this hierarchical model from the Middle Ages. Early Career Researchers, Contract Research Staff, Postdoctoral Research Associates, whatever we call them (see the recent WonkHE post ‘Who works in a University’ for a partially satirical look at the semantic chaos we have created in describing who does what in our institutions) are still subject to the demands of their Principal Investigator (PI) and often restricted in what they are permitted to do outside the tight remit of the research project they are employed for.

Of course there are also researchers who are blessed with supportive PIs. Those who make introductions, open metaphorical doors to prestigious conferences, co-publish, mentor, and defer their own limelight and reputation to shine a torch on their researcher. Sadly, these Super-PIs are few and far between. When we as developers want to showcase exemplary support for researchers we contact these people, many of them quite literally, jolly good Fellows, and roll them out to show others how it’s done.

So why are we still lacking a plentiful supply of positive PI role models 10 years after the publication of The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, a document which outlines very clearly the expectations placed upon research organisations to provide a developmental experience for research staff. New PIs should be coming through the ranks, developed themselves and ready to develop others. More experienced PIs have had a decade to get on board with what research staff need. Why haven’t all the principles been met, making the Concordat redundant?

Let’s be clear, research organisations have not been dragging their heels. There has been traction in many of the areas identified by the original 2008 Concordat, and a lot has been achieved. The injection of Roberts money (let us think affectionately of the late Sir Gareth Roberts as Merlin in this analogy, casting his magic in the form of £200 per Research Council funded researcher) created a sizeable pot for universities from which high quality learning and development activities could be funded. This has enabled research institutions to build sustainable infrastructures to support the development of research staff. Researcher Development functions now exist in most universities providing researchers with a wide range of personal, professional and career development programmes. We have achieved forward movement in many ways, and progresses the Concordat’s vision significantly.

In areas where there has been less traction, the Sword in the Stone if you’ll continue to support the extension of the metaphor, has been in the provision and requirement of PIs to actively support their researchers.

There has been less leverage (in the form of either funding, or requirement) from the funders (Research Councils, Charities, etc.) for the development of people management and leadership practices for PIs. The Concordat concentrated only on the obligations and responsibilities of Research Staff (Squires) and institutions that employ them. As a sector we haven’t offered the same level of development to PIs, and they play an important role as the line-managers of our Research Staff.

Thankfully the funders in the form of UKRI commissioned an Independent Review of the Concordat (after some lobbying by Researchers14) and low and behold, post-review we are pleased to see that there are recommendations to help universities address this deficit in PI development.

The Concordat Review Report Recommendation 4 states: ‘There should be increased support for researcher independence, including autonomy in their own career development, and the freedom to innovate’- and proposes that: ‘a revised Concordat should address the tension between PIs and postdoctoral independence,setting out clearly the obligations for both groups’.

Additionally, the Concordat Steering Group’s response to a later Recommendation (13) takes a clear position on the need to support and develop PIs to achieve: ‘Principal investigators have a key role to play in supporting the development of researchers through appropriate line management, performance management and realising potential and it is the responsibility of university managers to ensure that principal investigators are supported in delivering this’.

As Researcher Developers we applaud this developmental approach and language wholeheartedly. Development for PIs is important because they are important. It demonstrates a commitment to continuing professional development for all researchers. We are often joined at our own Round Tables by PIs themselves, as well as representatives from the Research Funders and are developing a few recommendations of our own for PI development. Below are mine:

  1. Review - there is an enormous wealth of data available on what works in developing PIs, through the UK HR Excellence in Research and the EU HR Strategy for Research (HRS4R as it’s catchily known) recognition awards for HE institutions. Let’s use these sources to identify those institutions where PI development is taking place, review the current methods and modes of training development. 101 UK institutions currently hold the HR Excellence in Research Award; let’s use the data to benchmark where we are now, use this as a baseline, and put in place evaluation methods that enable progress and impact to be measured. What are institutions already doing that others can learn from? What mechanisms do other institutions offer for encouraging and recognising engagement?

  2. Document - having identified what is happening let’s create case study examples of PI development, policy changes and interventions that have been proven to positively impact on the career development of researchers. To cite a personal example: there are now 100+ PI alumni of the ‘Research Leaders’ programme at the University of York who are keen and have the skills to support the professional development of their researchers. They nominate and support our Research Staff Liaison Officers, help to disseminate information about research staff development and training and take an active part in the implementation of the University’s Concordat action plan. They will also be invited to respond to the recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Concordat.

  3. Create – a framework by which excellent research leadership can be recognised. Peer review panels ask Fellowship candidates for evidence of leadership, vision, supervisory experience, ability to support a team (excellent research is a given). We could make the work of these committees easier by creating a robust recognition model identifying and evidencing the experience and standards of research leadership. If this were supported by the Research Funders it would be credible and more attractive to PIs, especially if funds and time were built into grants to enable the extraction required to undergo training. A bold move would be to create a national framework for PI Development along the lines of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF for academic practice) detailing the areas of activity, core knowledge and professional values expected of a PI. A more achievable short term option would be for the funders to endorse the practice detailed in the case study examples and to ask institutions to provide evidence of PI engagement with training and development.

The Concordat review recommendations provide a mandate for change, and one that we welcome. Let us collectively continue to support our research staff to develop the skills and capabilities they need to become independent, and let’s also formally recognise the contribution that skilled and supported PIs (our modern Knights in shining armour) make to their development of the Research Staff they employ.

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