The practice of research has evolved. Now it’s time for research support to evolve as well.

Mark Mann
August 20, 2019

Research support matters, but what matters most about research support? Millions of dollars are spent on research and its associated salaries each year in Canada, but there is a damaging lack of evidence on how institutions can best support researchers to be successful.

Defining the challenges

Beyond its intrinsic complexity, the job of carrying off high-quality research now goes far beyond knowledge application and methodological prowess. Researchers today must also possess a wide range of both technical and personal skills. Consider the range of activities, outcomes and concerns that researchers need to manage:

  • Collaboration: Whereas collaboration once entailed simply working with other researchers, now a wider range of diverse parties seek active involvement in the research process from its earliest stages. Researchers also increasingly need to work with government, commercial partners, community members, and lay stakeholders.
  • Communication: Dissemination to other researchers via conferences and presentations should now be supplemented with interdisciplinary communication, evidence-informed knowledge translation, and public engagement via traditional mass-media and social media.
  • Impact: Societal impact is not only desired but expected. It can be achieved in various forms, including policy, commercialization and community change.
  • Funding: To plan and manage research programs, researchers have to navigate multiple uncertainties, as funding bases decrease and competition for funding increases.

Consequently, today’s research demands extensive and sophisticated personal skills: to establish and sustain high-performing and diverse teams; to listen and communicate well; and to work strategically and creatively on demand.  Simultaneously, researchers have to manage high volumes of daily emails, meetings, administration, and possible and actual conflicts.

Understandably, many researchers find these demands to be extremely challenging. There is a prevailing perception that today’s research has to be done very quickly, as there are many pressures to show impact. Corners may be cut. Researchers often retain a healthy personal drive to succeed but may also engage in corrosive peer-comparisons and conflicts with others. Cumulatively, this has become a recipe for poor mental health. International studies indicate that up to 70% of those working in research have high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Going beyond infrastructure development

While it’s important to address the systemic factors that contribute to research challenges, institutions have a clear self-interest and responsibility to support both the research enterprise and the people leading this research. Even so, institutional support needs to be improved.

Too often support for researchers focuses mainly or exclusively on developing infrastructure and administration rather than on supporting the researchers directly. Research support is often confined to checking grants for compliance or periodical "brownbag" sessions on the usual topics, such as grantsmanship or writing. Ongoing professional development is ad hoc, on-the-job and task-focused. While helpful research mentorship undoubtedly exists, good practices are much more likely to be sporadic than systematic. And although the need for support for early career researchers is widely recognized, a trailing misconception exists that needs for professional development somehow lessen over the career.

Centralized and holistic institutional research support

To improve research support, more centralized institutional programs of research support should be provided to new and established researchers. Like teaching, it should not be assumed that those doing research somehow come to their jobs with the requisite skills and abilities needed for initial and ongoing success.

Researcher development should not only address technical aspects but also more tacit — yet essential — personal and interpersonal skills that transcend different research tasks: working from values; creating and sustaining teams; having difficult conversations and providing feedback; setting and managing priorities; being creative amidst time and resource constraints; and harnessing failure well.

Using research to inform research support

There is a pressing need to both draw on and develop the knowledge base informing research supports. Where possible, new institutional initiatives should themselves be informed by research, rather than mere opinion or past practices.

Current research has already documented the benefits of skills development, institutional grant competitions, workshops, mentorship programs and strategic recruitment. Yet more and better research is needed to provide stronger and more nuanced evidence on which supports work best in different contexts.

For example, the current research seldom uses complex evaluation or well-designed trials to assess whether and how supports make a difference. Stronger evidence is needed regarding how supports can be adapted for early career researchers and to lessen ongoing disparities around sex, gender, race, disability and indigenous status. Finally, more rapid and iterative evaluation of existing supports, informed by a culture of "fail fast," would allow promising and novel initiatives to be designed and refined more rapidly and promote more innovative research support.

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