Shifting Sands

One of my roles at Edinburgh is to deliver part of the Research Leader course that we offer to staff who are in the early years of their independent academic career. The last workshop in the programme looks at career development and our research leaders spend the day thinking about the next ten years of their careers as well as the support they will give to the students and staff they supervise and manage.

We start the day thinking about the ways in which our university and the wider academic sector might develop in that ten years. In the early years (I’ve run this workshop for about a decade) people felt reasonably confident discussing the future of academia. We talked about the growing importance of collaboration and increased scrutiny of research and the difference it makes (what we now call impact). We considered the role of technology in research, communication between researchers and how we would best work with large datasets. Disease and health were flagged up alongside climate change and energy as big challenges that research could provide possible solutions to and much more. We rarely talked about HE policy and funding models. The RAE was mentioned but didn’t generate much debate. The discussion was generally quite upbeat and people saw lots of possibilities.

The discussions that take place now are very different. Uncertainty permeates in all directions:  Brexit and US politics. REF and TEF and how they will interact. The new UK funding council, UKRI  – a merger of RCUK and Innovate UK which is likely to bring changes in funding systems and priorities. Reactions to these “shifting sands” can derail the session, so to stimulate useful discussion and keep it moving in a positive direction, a few years ago I started to engage much more with HE policy. In the process I discovered my inner wonk and during the workshops I’ve run in the last year found that there’s an increasing appetite for policy information amongst early career academics.

If you are reading this with aspirations to pursue an academic career, I’d urge you to start engaging with the policy landscape. There are lots of indicators in reports and the debates that they stimulate. Being informed about developments in HE will help you to make better decisions about potential collaborations, stakeholders and understand more about the context in which funders develop their programmes and make decisions.At the risk of sounding like someone to avoid at parties, here are some of my favourite reports and resources to help the uninitiated awaken their own inner wonk.

Stern – Lord Stern conducted a substantial review of REF last year and the consultation for the second REF is open until March 17th.

Nurse – Lord Nurse’s review of the research funding landscape led to the merger between RCUK and Innovate UK into UKRI. At the time of writing this, applications are being sought for the UKRI board.

Dowling – Dame Dowling looked at university – business interactions, with an aim of simplifying the complex systems supporting innovation. This is probably my favourite report (yes, I have a favourite, don’t judge me) partly because of the topic – I’m especially interested in collaboration – and partly because the “infographicy” summaries make the findings of the report very accessible.

If spending your weekend ploughing through Government reports isn’t your thing, but you’re still interested, I’d recommend a visit to WONKHE (pronounced in my head as wonky). This a platform for those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics. The articles cover all aspects of Higher Education, not just research and include a guide to the REF consultation, a post supporting UKRI and a particularly entertaining one explaining more about the origins of UKRI and why RUK was rejected as a potential name for our new funding body.

I keep policy “on the radar” by following @wonkhe on twitter. Next week’s post will be about twitter and how I choose which people and organisations to follow.




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