Important but not Valued Enough

(October 21st, 2015) A new survey among UK Principal Investigators reveals the joys and sorrows of managing and leading a research group.

What makes an excellent research leader? Significant contribution to the respective research area and applying the highest standards of research integrity and conduct! According to the Principal Investigators and Research Leaders Survey (PIRLS) 2015 these aspects are rated as most important for being a successful researcher, independent of the research field. More than 4,300 researchers from higher education institutions all across the UK took this biennial survey that aims to find out about the personal views and experiences concerning leadership and management of researchers from all research areas.

The estimated importance of an activity and its perceived or experienced appreciation within higher education institutions often varied tremendously. So almost 97 % of the respondents stated that good research conducts, e.g. in terms of ethics, is a very important behaviour of a Principal Investigator or Research Leader, PIRL. However, only approximately 80 % felt that this is recognised and valued at their institution. The gap was even higher with regard to the provision of career development advice to others: While more than 68 % consider showing up career options outside academia is an important task of a PIRL, only approximately 35 % felt this was valued.

PIRLS was established by Vitae and was first conducted in 2011. Vitae is an international programme based in Cambridge, UK that “is dedicated to realising the potential of researchers through transforming their professional and career development”. To achieve this the programme works together with all stakeholders such as higher education institutions, researchers, research organisations and research funders. Based on these collaborations it also elaborates policies for the development of researchers. However, Vitae not only makes recommendations but also monitors the impact of researchers on economy and society, the implementation of policy and the development of researchers in general. PIRLS is one of their tools to do so.

Participants of PIRLS were also invited to provide information about managing and leading a research group. With regard to management activities such as budget management, development of research staff, supervising other staff and research students again there was a general gap between the estimated importance and the perceived appreciation within the institution. About 97 % of the participating researchers think that supervision of students is very important but only about 75 % felt this is appropriately valued. The biggest difference was detected for the development of research staff: While more than 95 % consider this as being a very important task for an excellent PIRL, less than 54 % thought this was valued.

In general the significance of management and leadership was rated lower than actual research activities. This may also be influenced by the experience that such tasks are less valued within higher education institutions.

The researchers were further asked to give feedback about their confidence in the respective duties. Almost all respondents felt confident or even fully confident when it comes to supervising research students (93 %). Furthermore, over 80 % felt confident in leading their group, motivating individuals and recruiting and selecting group members. The researchers were least confident about managing finances, managing staff performance and providing advice on the range of career opportunities. Between 20 and 25 % of the participants stated that they do not feel confident (at all) about these responsibilities. In general less women than men felt confident irrespective of the concerned function. Consequently, also more females believed they would benefit from additional training or support.

Overall PIRLS revealed that most responding researchers in the UK are satisfied with their job (76 %). However, 44 % of them do not think they are appropriately rewarded for their contributions to the institution. Furthermore, the majority of PIRLs state that they are unsatisfied with their work-life-balance (54 %).

Another block of questions addressing equality and diversity revealed that there is still a gender gap to overcome. Altogether about 86 % of the researchers believe that their institution is committed to fairness. However, this is denied by more than twice as much females (16 %) than males (7 %). In both cases the numbers are higher now than they were in 2013 (13 % and 6 % respectively). This trend is also confirmed by the fact that the number of personally experienced discrimination rose within the last two years: 22 % of women and 7 % of men reported such events in their current post (2013: 20 % and 6 %). More than one fifth of the respondents perceived career progression and promotion, reward and participation in decision making being unfair.

Vitae compares the results of the current PIRLS with those of 2011 and 2013 to follow up changes and development of the research environment in the UK. Overall the results from 2015 were very similar to those in 2013.

Vitae encourages institutions to analyse their data and address identified shortcomings. For instance it is now recommended to raise the significance of leading and managing research groups and thereby raising the appreciation and reward for such tasks. Furthermore, due to the fact that especially women do not feel appropriately recognised and fairly treated, institutions are encouraged to review answers to open-ended questions to improve the situation.

Thereby, Vitae wants to advance continuous enhancement of the situation of researchers across Europe. Findings of PIRLS are complemented by those of CROS (Careers Research Online Survey) that addresses all research staff, not only those in leading positions. Both surveys monitor the implementation of the UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers as well as the HR Excellence in Research Award. The latter one is awarded by the European Commission to institutions that provide good and fair working conditions for researchers as set out in the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. The UK is by far the country with the highest number of institutions that received an HR Excellence in Research Award: 95 of all 251 awarded institutions are located in the UK. This is followed by Spain with 33 awards and Croatia with 16 awards.

The UK’s leading position can be explained by continuous monitoring of the research environment and subsequent adaption. Amongst others PIRLS has proven to be a useful tool to support this progression.

Stefanie Haas

Photo: Hodan

Last Changes: 12.01.2015