One of the key challenges for CREST members and smaller or specialist institutions is creating vibrant and inclusive research cultures that enable academics to undertake high quality research and develop strong research funding applications. All CREST members are making great strides in this area and four members recently attended the Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) annual conference in Birmingham to showcase the successes and outline some of the challenges faced by smaller institutions. Lachlan Smith (Bishop Grosseteste, Newman and Leeds Trinity Universities) and Claire Tapia (St Mary’s University) were joined by Dr Anett Kiss (Sussex University) to explore some of the different approaches to research development and what lessons can be learned by larger institutions.
Over 70 delegates attended the workshop which covered issues ranging from current research infrastructure, how best to share intelligence and promote interdisciplinary working and the importance of celebrating success. The two key themes of the workshop were to highlight what can be achieved with limited resources and to share these lessons with colleagues from larger institutions, especially those based at a departmental or faculty level. Following an icebreaker where people were asked to consider where they would start if they had to establish a new research office with only one member of staff the workshop outlined existing structures within the smaller institutions. This lead into a discussion about current activities, key lessons and thoughts from the audience on approaches to research development activities. Some of the key activities and advantages of being a small institution highlighted were:
- The ability to share intelligence and share research stories and expertise through university wide research days. These days can bring together researchers, administrators and external speakers to focus on current research, celebrate research success and develop new partnerships and networks.
- Implementing research management software to track research progress and report outputs for REF and other internal monitoring. These systems can be implemented more easily in smaller institutions as they tend to have fewer legacy systems than larger institutions. Many smaller universities implement these systems later and can learn from larger universities.
- Sharing of resources can be a positive experience including the sharing of research development expertise. Joint events as well as joint posts have been implemented to take forward research support. For joint posts to work it was agreed that they needed to have quick access to decision makers, work at the coal face and ignore potential competition between institutions.
- Smaller research offices can deal with problems and questions quickly, often facilitating and brokering relationships with other key members of staff. This is coupled with a face to face service that is valued by academics and enables clear and focused advice to be given to individual researchers. Smaller institutions can often retain the personal touch when working with researchers although this, it wwas acknowledged, needs to be managed as research grows.
- Being agile and responding quickly to opportunities can be easier when smaller. As can the ability to openly draw on free external resources that can support researchers. When working within smaller institutions it is important to be as flexible as possible when looking for potential resources – we don’t have time to reinvent the wheel!
The workshop recognised that this wasn’t a one way street though. Although small institutions do have advantages and larger ones can learn from our approaches it is clear that we can learn from the bigger players too. Drawing on the experiences of ethics committees and policies, more flexible and imaginative approaches to internal funding and the need for specialist input (i.e. impact, EU funding etc) alongside more general support were highlighted as some of the lessons taken on board by smaller universities.
The session provided a great opportunity for four CREST members to promote the work that they do in research development with many members of the audience being surprised at the breadth of work covered as well as the positive impact it can have on research cultures. Many larger institutions are not aware of the work done in small and specialist universities and this workshop helped to highlight not only the work being done but also challenged perceptions about smaller institutions, their infrastructure and their research capabilities.