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  • Dr Sara Shinton & Dr Rachel Cowen

Strengthening UK research leadership

This is a guest post by Dr Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development, University of Edinburgh. and Dr Rachel Cowen, Lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Manchester.

For the UK to retain its world leading position in research and innovation we need to develop, nurture and reward our present and future research leaders. We must do this in a way that helps them respond to the challenges and demands of their role. They have a critical role to play, and need to be equipped with a range of skills and behaviours if they are to be able to increase research productivity and innovation, in line with the 2.4% of GDP investment promised by the government.

We also need to ensure that we have the right kind of leaders to positively shape the future UK research culture.

This viewpoint was strongly re-enforced at the inspiring Royal Society Research Culture Conference in Oct 2018 where headline messaging included: “We don’t just need the right amounts of money to be spent in the right way. We could have all the money in the world, but we also need the right people – outstanding people.”

Despite ‘Research Leadership’ development programmes being available both within institutions and also through research funders (e.g. the Wellcome Research Leaders Development Programme), many UK Principal Investigators (PIs) and Research Leaders feel under-confident in their personal effectiveness and ability to manage, motivate and lead their research groups (see the Five Steps Forward report) and stated that they would benefit from training or support.

The need for leadership development for these staff is likely to be reinforced by the changes to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Research Staff (due to be published later in 2019), which currently seems to be inclined towards encouraging institutions to increase the support and development for PIs, as these academic staff are the enablers or disablers of development and success in their Research Staff. This means that researcher development teams are preparing for a likely growth in demand for research leadership and management development activities.

What can be learned from the leadership development programmes already established by the Researchers 14 members?

At a national meeting in Summer 2018, we mapped key areas of leadership development, covering the entire research and academic journey, from day one of a PhD; through the critical research associate, fellowship or early lectureship phase(s) where research independence and opportunities for leadership are further embedded; to senior level strategic and global research leadership. We shared and discussed the development opportunities each of our member institutions currently provide. The figure below summarises our mapping activity and shows our institutions’ leadership development initiatives across the researcher trajectory.

By sharing our approaches and experiences through the Researchers 14 network we have each developed our own thinking about research leadership, and we are looking at how we can address a number of recommended enhancements as our programmes develop and evolve. We are developing strategies to:

1. Increase rewards for excellence in team leadership: Our research leaders have traditionally been chosen and rewarded on the basis of individual success in research and clinical practice, rather than on the basis of demonstrated leadership and management. We need to review both funder and institutional reward and recognition mechanisms so that we recognise, celebrate and promote successful team leadership and research talent management. Several of our member institutions have put increased emphasis on mentoring colleagues within academic promotion criteria and have established annual award schemes such as ‘PI of the Year’ and ‘Research Supervisor of the Year’ awards, as well as non award bearing recognition schemes designed to share accounts of good practice and celebrate good research leadership in a non-competitive way.

2. Engage researchers with leadership development from the start: Academics have been slow to recognise, and many remain sceptical, of the benefits of leadership and management development which they associate with the private sector. Engagement with continuing professional development more generally is low amongst senior academics, who are often the most time strapped and pressured staff group in our organisations. Consequently, they prioritise working harder on their research, rather than investing in their research team and empowering them to work smarter and more productively. By engaging researchers at the earliest ‘grass roots’ stage we can raise leadership development as a key and 'normal' part of researcher development from the start of the research career journey. This systemic approach to research leadership development which in the longer term could be supported by a competency framework – as discussed here in an earlier post. “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.”

3. Create an evidence base: To maintain credibility and academic commitment to leadership development programmes, be wary of bringing in development experts from the corporate sector unless they can provide sound pedagogic underpinnings for their approach and can also contextualise leadership and management development within the higher education setting, changing their leadership vocabulary as needed. Instead use real world research group examples and case studies and/or expert facilitators drawn from the academic research community. Delivery should not be just about a series of workshops, but rather researchers should be given the time and the opportunity to apply their learning, taking a ‘leadership in action’ approach. Underpinning leadership development programmes with action learning, coaching or peer support groups brings added value and drives a reflective approach to research leadership practice extending the duration and impact of the leadership programme.

4. Support research leaders to acknowledge their development needs: We are increasingly talking about ‘Imposter Syndrome’ with our research leaders. Our participants sometimes disclose thoughts of ‘Do I deserve to be here?’ or ‘Do I really know what I’m doing?’. However, due to highly competitive environments, many of them are afraid to openly acknowledge concerns about their own leadership, or what they perceive to be their failings, and to ask for support. More dangerously we also see a lack of self-awareness, the foundation of exceptional leadership, in senior research leaders. The inclusion of coaching and mentoring for research leaders can be a very effective way to give research leaders the confidence in their abilities or help them identify development opportunities in a supportive space. Leadership assessment tools such as 360-degree feedback and emotional intelligence and personality profiling are commonly included and can, if properly adapted for a learner-centred approach, be powerful ways to increase self-awareness and reflection on leadership capability.

5. Build diverse leadership capacity: In line with an opinion shared by John Kingsman (the Chair of UKRI), the single biggest thing we could do to improve UK research and development is to diversify the workforce, and this includes diversifying research leadership. Our current research leaders are drawn from the UK Professoriate which is 92% White, and 76% Male. A sector–wide commitment to improving diversity has led to a proliferation in targeted leadership and development programmes specifically for women, and for Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority staff, but we need a stronger evidence base to understand the issues facing these staff groups and to ensure that the interventions we design are impactful, rather than ‘othering’. The recently launched EPSRC funded Inclusion Matters programme of projects is a promising development.

Just as our research leaders need to adapt and collaborate to be successful in the future, researcher developers must do the same. Strengthening and diversifying research leadership is a long-term piece of work, involving multiple process, policy and cultural shifts, but we are committed as a group to moving towards this future vision.

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