How research management needs to respond to the international partnership challenge

How research management needs to respond to the international partnership challenge
9 March, 2022

Blog series ‘Equitable partnerships: Lessons from practitioners’

William Mitchell, Louise Heery and Yolanda Davids

One thing the pandemic has done is prompt many of us to reflect on our work practice. For research management, one longstanding challenge has been how to respond to the international partnership agenda. 

Our own story began in March 2021 when three research managers from Wits (African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA)) and Leeds and Liverpool (N8 Research Partnership, eight research-intensive universities in Northern England) came together to design and deliver a Partnerships and Collaboration module to a UK-Africa cohort of research managers. This was part of the International Research Management Staff Development Programme organised by the UK’s Association of Research Managers and Administrators and the African Academy of Sciences.  

UK research managers have faced multiple challenges from the increase in ODA (Official Development Assistance) research funding focused on low and middle income countries. Arguably the biggest has been incorporating a partnership agenda. One funder requirement was the need for due diligence on partners, not traditionally carried out by UK research managers. The challenge increased when funders began to require equitable partnerships. Often collaborations are forged without assessing whether all parties have adequate capacity to support collaboration. It is not always possible to identify equity issues at the proposal stage, some only emerging during delivery.

We suggest that changes are needed at three levels: 

  • individual research manager
  • institutional
  • research management community
(a) The research manager should take on a broader role within their institution

Research manager roles need to go beyond financial management with a broader skill set. Managers need to work across the university (e.g. with international or human resources) and get closer to the research itself and recognise its real-life implications. But it would be unfair to expect individual managers to bear the entire burden of this change. 

(b) Make systemic changes within the university

The international partnership agenda is likely to fall under the remit of other professional services within an institution, notably international offices. Research services typically focus on the rigour involved in funding research projects, international offices on the overall relationships between institutions. There is a risk, particularly in research-intensive institutions that research-led partnerships and collaboration fall between these cracks. It’s important for research services to harness the existing knowledge in international offices (such as due diligence processes) or expertise in managing institutional relationships. 

 An organisation will choose to adopt its own particular organisational structures to handle international partnerships. It may locate research-led partnerships within research services, or within the international office, or split functions across research and international. Whichever organisational approach is taken, it is important for an institution to have a coherent strategic approach by senior leadership that allows effective integration of these overlapping remits. 

An institutional strategy would allow research manager roles to be more precisely defined. Metrics can provide greater freedom to research managers so that they are empowered and rewarded for supporting partnerships that are equitable and inclusive. Institutions might consider how to locate research collaborations within broader, deeper strategic partnerships between institutions. Strategic partnerships may extend beyond research to encompass transnational education agreements with the partner, investment in joint appointments and regular exchanges between academic and non-academic staff. Strategic partnerships require dynamic and fluid support and place greater demands on research managers who would be expected to work with colleagues from different support functions and work directly with research managers at partner institutions.  

(c) The research management community must adapt 

Research managers should harness networks for sharing best practice. The N8 has an International Research Managers Group which crucially, was established bottom-up.  Institutional networks such as the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) enable development managers to meet quarterly to discuss activities, share intelligence about regional priorities, and informally to pursue bi-lateral or regional initiatives. It is a model that N8 and ARUA are exploring. 

When these three research managers got together at the start of 2021 to design a module we had no idea we would still be meeting regularly and developing our thinking. We’re looking forward to taking stock again one year on … I guess there is nothing like delivering training to prompt reflection about your own practice. 

Author bios

William Mitchell has spent the last five years leading on support for global challenges and international research collaboration at the University of Liverpool. He will be moving to the University of Sheffield to continue the challenge of bridging global research partnerships and research collaboration.

Louise Heery is Head of Global Research Development at the University of Leeds. She has supported research collaborations and research partnerships from within the International Office and Research and Innovation Services for 10 years and is happy to have a foot in both camps.

Yolanda Davids is the University of the Witwatersrand’s Deputy Director of Research Development (Wits). She is in charge of coordinating research funding opportunities from local, regional, and international sources. She has over 15 years of experience in research management. 

Photo credit 

All photos used herein were supplied by the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) via the University of Pretoria.

About the ‘Equitable Partnerships: Lessons from Practitioners’ Blog Series 

At UKCDR, we know that research for development needs equitable partnerships. We also know that there are still lessons to learn as we move equitability in collaborative research from principles to practice, which will be explored in upcoming UKCDR and ESSENCE guidance. In the leadup to these guidelines, we’re excited to share our new blog series, ‘Equitable Partnerships: Lessons from Practitioners’. Each week, we’ll hear from International Development practitioners as they share their insights on the topic, providing best practice and learning examples informed by their experience in the field.

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