Given constraints on independent positions across India’s scientific institutions, a new career option — research management — beckons PhD degree holders, says our guest blogger and seasoned research management consultant Savita Ayyar.
Backed by a decade of research management experience at Wellcome Trust London and National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, Savita says attractive remuneration makes this profession a good alternative for scientists keen on exploring a non-academic research-related career.
No more a lonely path
Nobel Laureate Sir John Gurdon’s elegant experiments in 1958, transplanting whole nuclei into frog eggs, have laid the ground for much of our current thinking in the field of stem cell research. While the same spirit of enquiry and joy of experimentation still exists in research today, the current generation of scientists have to grapple with a far more complex research environment. Researchers have to master the art of raising and managing funds from diverse sources, navigating ethical considerations around research, doing ‘team science’ in large consortia, scrutinising research impact and translating basic research to benefit society.
The good news is that scientists don’t need to walk this path alone. A new army of ‘research managers’ offer that helping hand needed to facilitate their science. These research managers juggle work across several fields and help researchers navigate a labyrinth of processes and details, making modern research possible.
Research management has evolved as a profession over several decades. The need for this profession arose from institutional needs to manage a diversity of research awards. It has continued to develop in response to the changing international funding landscape1. Many research-intensive organisations worldwide have research offices catering to the needs of both individual researchers and institutions. Research managers and administrators play key roles in such offices, working proactively to manage a gamut of processes enabling external research funding. Success in this field hinges upon helping researchers make optimal use of all available opportunities while minimising risk to institutions.
So, what are the key skills that could make you an effective research manager?
• It’s a combination of professional skills, personal attributes and an enabling environment.
• A broad-based background in science and administration, such as knowledge of funding agency processes, can significantly enhance a research manager’s reach.
• A natural flair for working with people, willingness to learn about new areas, attention to detail and strong organizational skills are crucial, as is an enabling institutional work environment that recognizes the value of facilitation.
• There is room here for a diversity of skills and interests, ranging from academic to administrative, all of which add value to the organization seeking to raise and manage external funding.
Research management in India
In India, science-led research management has taken wings in the last decade. The National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was among the first to start a research development office in 2010 to support the external funding needs of a growing campus. The office was unusual for India, and quickly began growing a team of scientist administrators who facilitated research funding.
Several others such as the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, Centre for Stem Cell Research (CSCR) Vellore, National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Shiv Nadar University, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Tata Translational Cancer Research Centre (TTCRC) and George Institute for Global Health (GIGH) have been recruiting research managers and building research offices. There is now a growing group of scientists in non-academic roles including grant management, scientific outreach, ethics and others, working alongside researchers, administrators and staff at external agencies to facilitate research at Indian institutions. Individuals with a first-hand understanding of the research process are taking up such roles, gaining professional acceptance from their academic peers and building trust-based working partnerships.
With attractive remunerations, the profession is also proving to be a good alternative for individuals with PhD degrees, who wish to develop their careers in non-academic research-related roles. This is particularly significant, given constraints on independent scientific positions across India’s scientific institutions. Such efforts have considerably expanded the scope of support available to researchers at these institutions, bringing in much needed links between science, external funding and societal engagement. There is now a growing awareness of the role of research management as a new and important element of India’s developing research ecosystem.
The road ahead
While these are welcome developments for Indian research, much of these efforts have been isolated. Research management is needed for science in India to progress and for Indian research institutions to be globally competitive. For it to secure firm footing in India, more institutions need to create such structures and research managers in India need to be trained with the requisite skills and to gather into a professional network that aids their career development.
Earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance launched the India Research Management Initiative (IRMI) with workshops that brought research managers together to share their career stories and experiences (Linkedin page). The collective is designing online training courses and networking events. Indian research managers also participated at INORMS 2018, a large international conference, interacting with peers from 45 countries. These developments demonstrate the immense value of creating training and networking opportunities for current and future research management professionals in India.
So, what does the future hold for research managers in India? Science in India needs additional support from non-government sources such as industry and philanthropy. Research-intensive institutions would do well to have structures in place that allow their researchers to tap into diverse sources of funding with ease and clarity, participate in collaborative research and work to find solutions for national and global challenges. It is time India boosts its research ecosystem with research managers as academic support workforce. With good training and a supportive environment, this dynamic new profession is poised to make a welcome and significant change in the research landscape of the country.
1. Langley, D. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education. 16, 71-76 (2012) doi: 10.1080/13603108.2012.659289
(Savita Ayyar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets from @SavitaAyyar)