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Part of a research manager’s remit is to act as a liaison between researchers and funding agencies, companies and governments.Credit: SetsukoN/Getty

The global research ecosystem is becoming increasingly complex, meaning that institutions with strong research management and administration teams could have an advantage in undertaking multidisciplinary and cross-border projects. To attract the next generation of research management and administration professionals and to support their growth, institutions need to provide them with a clear career trajectory, proposes a book published in November.

The Emerald Handbook of Research Management and Administration Around the World brings together the perspectives of research managers and administrators (RMAs) and highlights the field’s biggest developments and most urgent needs. The book was edited by Simon Kerridge, an honorary member of staff in research and innovation services at the University of Kent, UK; Susi Poli, who studies higher-education staff development at the University of Bologna, Italy; and Mariko Yang-Yoshihara, an instructor and education researcher at Stanford University in California.

Nature Index spoke to Kerridge, Poli and Yang-Yoshihara about the most important insights they gained from compiling the book.

What prompted you to produce the book?

In the past few decades, scholars and practitioners have noted the rise of RMAs, who play a crucial part in scientific ecosystems worldwide. However, few initiatives have investigated RMAs in a cross-regional manner and have aimed to understand their role in a broader context.

The three of us met at a conference in early 2020 and decided to write a paper together. But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Regular Zoom meetings kept us engaged and prompted a constant flow of ideas. Our plans evolved and expanded. Eventually, one of us said, “Why don’t we write a book?” The suggestion seemed a bit audacious at first, but we have something in common: optimism. This is how a simple idea to combine three people’s research evolved into a three-year project that involved authors from around the world.

What are the largest challenges for RMAs globally, based on your findings?

The biggest hurdle is the absence of a well-defined and structured career path. A consistent theme emerges in the book: although RMAs are gaining global recognition, particularly in regions such as North America, Western Europe, Asia and Australasia, many countries are still developing a clear occupational trajectory for those entering the field. Individuals in research administration in South America, the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe and Africa, frequently feel undervalued.

This book was born out of a desire to change the narrative. Despite having diverse doctoral and career backgrounds, we all recognized that during our graduate studies, the focus was on how to become academics, not professionals, such as RMAs. We aim to shift this perspective and show the next generation that becoming an RMA could be a viable and rewarding career path, and that they could help to advance science and knowledge as much as academics do. Currently, few university students or young professionals see research management and administration as an occupation.

In the final chapter (chapter 6), we emphasize that policymakers and institutional leaders need to be proactive in raising awareness of RMAs’ importance in global research collaborations and in encouraging top talent to pursue careers in the field.

How did you achieve such a broad investigation of RMAs?

The book is structured into two main sections. The first part aims to foster best practice in the field and provide resources for future generations of RMAs. The second compiles country- and region-specific information, and aims to capture the current state of the field globally. We brought on board regional editors who helped to identify and communicate with individual authors, who could contribute country-specific observations. We also used associations that were members of the International Network of Research Management Societies to help find contributors in regions beyond the reach of our personal networks.

Most previous studies on RMAs were written mainly by authors in North American and European countries, leading to a skewed contribution by these regions. We made concerted efforts to broaden our reach to regions in which research on RMAs had not previously been documented; at least, not in the English language. In the end, 127 authors from 50 regions and countries contributed their expertise.

We acknowledge that, despite its unprecedented scope, the book could not include some countries and regions. In some cases, this was because people we approached did not respond our calls, or because of language barriers, political situations or limitations in our network. Furthermore, widespread recognition of RMAs in research ecosystems in certain countries might also be lacking. We think that identifying regions in which the profession lags behind could enable further understanding of RMAs’ roles in projects.

What key differences did you identify in the roles of RMAs from various regions and countries?

One distinction highlighted by several authors is the gender profile (see, for example, chapter 5.44). In most countries, around 80% of RMAs identify as women. However, in certain regions (including Africa) and countries (such as Colombia and Japan), the gender distribution seems to be more balanced. This could be because this profession is relatively new in these places, meaning that more individuals enter the field from researcher roles rather than by transitioning from other professional routes.

What kinds of initiative are most effective in advancing the reputation, function and integration of RMAs in the wider research community?

One of the key findings of the book is the growing importance of professional associations in shaping and advancing the profession.

RMAs can join numerous national and regional associations, such as the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators, the Australasian Research Management Society, the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association and the West African Research and Innovation Management Association. National organizations with an international reach, such as the US National Council of University Research Administrators and the US Society of Research Administrators International, provide RMAs with a sense of belonging beyond national boundaries and increase the legitimacy of the profession and the mobility of those working in the field.

The book also notes the emerging trend of professionalization in regions such as Africa and Asia, and there are early signs of similar associations being set up in Central and Eastern European countries and the Caribbean.

What are the most valuable but unrecognized skills of RMAs?

Many chapters in the first part highlight the importance of ‘soft’ skills, such as effective communication, the building of collaborations, inclusive leadership and cross-cultural understanding. It is essential for RMAs to establish robust relationships and partnerships with key stakeholders such as researchers, funders, institutional leaders and policymakers. There is much discussion globally about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) systems for taking over certain administrative roles, but skills such as the ability to navigate intricate situations with tenacity, being adaptable and having a considerable amount of empathy are often overlooked and unrecognized. We think that these skills can’t easily be replaced by AI.

Academic researchers bring expertise, yet, just as a skilled racing driver still needs a team of engineers to anticipate problems and offer support, RMAs also have an indispensable role in the effective administration of research projects.

We hope that readers use this book as a platform for discussions that shape the future of RMAs and that they will seize opportunities in this evolving field.

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