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Swimming Against the Current

Academic Performance and Planning in an Era of Rapid Technological Change

Daniel Calto, Elsevier | Jan 01, 2009

The world of academic research has undergone seismic shifts in the last 10 years, and has left under significant pressures all parties interested in the furtherance of outstanding scientific and humanities research.

Challenges facing academic research

Researchers, research administrators and academic leaders alike have inherited complex challenges that have changed traditional methods of how research is done and, in particular, how it is funded and sustained. Many point to technology, specifically the rise of the Internet and associated electronic technologies, as the primary source of these challenges.

However, there are a number of additional factors involved: the rapid globalization of research; the demands of interdisciplinary research work because of growth in new fields, such as the economics of healthcare in the developing world; and the difficulty in financing and managing such complex and expensive projects. Compliance requirements, especially in biomedical research, are quite demanding and grow in complexity every year. And researchers need to submit more grants than previously to secure funding.

The research administrator perspective

Research administrators (RAs) are well situated to see the effects of such pressures firsthand. They interact extensively with all members of the research faculty, from junior researchers trying valiantly to obtain their first grants in a difficult funding landscape, to senior scientists and deans attempting to build outstanding programs that sustain and enhance the vitality of research in their respective disciplines or schools.

New requirements to submit grants electronically have created acute staffing pressures in many RA offices. At a time when it's needed more than ever, these offices have in turn decreased administrative support for individual researchers submitting grant applications.

The need for performance and planning tools

In the US, funding for academic research has been flat in real-dollar terms since 2004: a cumulative decrease of more than 20% once adjusted for inflation. Similar declines are common in other developed countries, though developing countries in Asia continue to increase overall research investments.

The attrition rate for young scientists who cannot bridge the gap from being a postdoc to becoming a lead investigator on a grant is very high, even for outstanding young scientists.

In this environment, it has become imperative that institutions invest their limited funds as wisely and as carefully as possible. The need for robust and innovative research performance and planning tools that allow researchers and administrators to maximize their chances of funding and track research productivity is already well recognized as an urgent need. To date, absence of truly innovative tools in this area has been a significant bottleneck to realizing the full potential of academic research.

Needs of specific university groups

The key needs in universities are multiple and distinct. Researchers at all levels need tools that effectively allow them to find relevant research opportunities with ease and support them to take advantage of these opportunities. Any system that delivers such functionality needs to have comprehensive content, be simple to use and understand, and allow researchers to best position their applications to succeed in a highly competitive environment.

This need for performance and planning tools is particularly acute for junior faculty, who are often facing the transition to becoming independently funded scientists and need to obtain grants that will make them so. The attrition rate for young scientists who cannot bridge the gap from being a postdoc to becoming a lead investigator on a grant is very high, even for outstanding young scientists. Many academic leaders cite this as one of the most serious problems threatening the viability of research excellence in the long term.

At the same time, current senior leaders at academic institutions have a strong need for “business intelligence” data about the respective strengths of the various fields of research at their institutions, especially detailed data about fields in which their institutions are exceptionally strong, and who their competitors and potential collaborators are. As more and more grants are being directed to large multidisciplinary groups within a single university or to major consortia at multiple institutions, it is less and less possible for any research dean, no matter how well informed, to understand what kinds of research are being performed at the institution and where the best opportunities for effective collaboration and future funding may be.

In order to make well-informed decisions regarding recruiting, retaining and giving tenure to their faculties, deans and department chairs also need to have reliable and objective productivity metrics for individual researchers. Just as important, deans and department chairs need clear metrics to evaluate and benchmark departmental, institute and center performance in order to make effective funding allocation decisions in a financially constrained environment. Department chairs need data analysis that will allow them to operate their departments effectively, efficiently and with transparency for budgeting and planning purposes.

Creatively solving dilemmas

There may be no single solution that effectively addresses all of these key needs of our research universities. Given the inherent complexity and uncertainty of research, significant challenges will remain even when the best of tools are effectively deployed. It is also clear, however, that the same key drivers — technology, globalization and the growth of new disciplines — that have disrupted the traditional methods of research over the last decade may be used in innovative ways to help solve many of the new problems and issues they have produced.

New technologies, global innovation and new disciplines such as human interface design can be harnessed by leading innovators both within and outside universities to creatively solve some of these dilemmas and allow research to be conducted more effectively than before.