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28 June 2017
DRUSSA University Vice-Chancellors’ Leadership Seminar Print
Monday, 25 May 2015 14:08

At the Vice Chancellors (VC’s) meeting that took place on the side of the ACU SARIMA Conference on the 11th May, DRUSSA Vice-Chancellors discussed their university's experiences of Research Uptake (RU) awareness raising and capacity building over the first three years of the DRUSSA Programme. As well as outlining successes, challenges and barriers that have been faced, they also discussed opportunities for future sustainability.

The DRUSSA project partners provided an overview of the objectives of the DRUSSA programme from its conception, through subsequent changes and its current activities. They highlighted achievements so far as well as future activities.

With that background the VC’s were asked to identify the successes, challenges/barriers and opportunities for their university’s Research Uptake plans.  They identified similarities and differences between their universities’ experiences and after a lively discussion a number of key issues emerged.


Research Uptake practitioners and researchers

The Vice-Chancellors acknowledged that Research Uptake practitioners have a unique set of skills and experiences and understand key RU activities, including technology transfer, knowledge exchange, engagement and knowledge translation. However they also need to understand the complexity of the research process in order to support researchers to plan, manage activities and disseminate the results of the research effectively. It was reported that commonly researchers feel that their work is done once they have reported to funders and/or written a scholarly article. They are therefore reluctant to spend more time on getting research into the hands of users, especially given their time (having not only to do research but also teach) and resource constraints.  There is also opposition from researchers to knowledge translation activities as they feel their work may not be adequately represented.

The result is that researchers may have a difficult relationship with support staff, feeling that they (support staff) are unable to understand the research process and are therefore reluctant to work with the RU practitioners. It was acknowledged that a positive culture that affirms the commitment to get research into use needs to be built up amongst researchers and bringing them on board to extend their work beyond scholarly communication is important for its success. It was recognized that funds for RU should be factored into the research budgets for projects, so that researchers see it as part of their work rather than just an add on activity. Finally RU Practitioners need to be sensitive to the reservations of researchers.

"the VC’s felt that there are innovative staff and students who are championing RU"

Strengthening and Keeping RU Capacity

While a number (over 150) of DRUSSA university staff members have completed either their Masters degrees, the short course in-service training at the University of Stellenbosch and DRUSSA-commissioned coaching and training, the fact remains that Research Uptake practitioners are thin on the ground.  The VC’s expressed concern that once they have built up their expertise they may leave the university though the evidence so far is that those who have benefitted from courses have remained in their positions and are being promoted and their skills have been recognised and utilised. So the suggestions to build an even broader base of researchers and support staff involved in RU were endorsed.  These included having RU awareness and skills training included in induction programmes and early career development training for both researchers and support staff, continuing the Masters and Phd modules, as well as delivering a range of in service online courses on Research Uptake.

 

Promotion, Recognition and Rewards

Related to the challenge of retaining staff and the challenges of bringing researchers on board is the issue of incentives. It is still common in some DRUSSA universities that researchers are promoted both for writing academic articles and bringing in funding, but undertaking RU is not yet a common, formal  promotion criterion. Many of those involved in practical Research Uptake such as extension workers, technology transfer practitioners and specialist RU communications practitioners are not employed as faculty or defined as researchers though they may be providing support to researchers.  It was noted with interest that some DRUSSA universities have now formally included RU in both academic and support staff job performance criteria, which could in due course lead to RU being a promotion criterion.

Despite these challenges, the VC’s felt that there are innovative staff and students who are championing RU. They also felt that it would be possible to institute formal reward and recognition mechanisms that are not related to salaries.

 

Sustainability – research funding, institutional support and government buy-in

Current research funding was seen as a key barrier for Research Uptake activities and sustainability.  Public universities compete with other government institutions for allocations from the public purse.    One alternative to the pressures on government block-funding to universities was identified as building ‘third-stream’ income which was explicitly for research..  While international collaborations do bring in substantial research funding, better collaborations with industry and better responses to industry’s demand for innovations and products could be an effective means of garnering funding while also delivering research solutions that can be taken up and used.

"The VCs were interested to hear presentations from colleagues, notably Professor Romeela Mohee, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, about progress in formally integrating research uptake in long-term strategic planning"

Other practical ways of addressing sustainability were suggested – for example there was  support for placing RU management in already existing offices, for example the Research Office, as has generally been the case in the DRUSSA programme.  

However, apart from the structural and resource elements related to RU activities,  in order to ensure sustainability it was felt that without RU being built into the overall university strategic plans, it would be difficult to get institutional buy in.  The VCs were interested to hear presentations from colleagues, notably Professor Romeela Mohee, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, about progress in formally integrating research uptake in long-term strategic planning. The University of Mauritius Strategic Research plan can be found here.

 

It was acknowledged by the Vice-Chancellors that it is important to be accountable to national governments.  By undertaking performance management evaluations and developing alternative metrics for RU it would be possible show impact and therefore the value of universities and their Research Uptake activities.

How investment in research is built into national policies is also important. For example some countries, such as South Africa, have multiple sources of research funding, but also intermediary institutions, such as the National Research Foundation, whereas in other countries research funding  is received directly from government. These differences impact on how universities work with their governments.

 

Conclusion

The open discussion about the challenges of RU allowed the VC’s to share their experiences and identify opportunities for ensuring sustainability of RU activities at their universities. It also provided a platform for VC’s to articulate their own approaches to RU, and to articulate their  support for their appointed DRUSSA Leaders and Champions as they operationalize RU capacity in their universities.

 


Diana Coates is a DRUSSA Programme co-lead and Programme Engagement and Communication Co-ordinator.

Alison Bullen is the DRUSSA website Content Manager, Organisation Systems Design alison.bullen@drussa.net

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