Building Resilience and Advancing the Profession

Dr Julie Bayley is the Director of Research Impact Development at the University of Lincoln, and sits on the ARMA Professional Development Committee. This latest blog from our Impact Literacy Advisor takes a look at how we can nurture resilience in academia.

Academia, and the wider research arena, is under increasing pressure from multiple directions. In the UK, Brexit is looming large in academic concerns, whilst both here and internationally, changes to government leadership and parliamentary constitution are bringing a sense of unsteadiness.

Academia is a place of privilege in many respects – those within it are able to drive advancements in knowledge and contribute to social change. However, for many, this sense of privilege is eroded by intensifying pressures to justify national research portfolios to government treasurers, competing for increasingly scarce funding opportunities and amid ever-pervasive fears around ‘publish or perish’. The research sector is littered with challenges that amplify the sense of pressure already present in the economic and political systems; e.g., short-term contracts and institutional restructuring, meaning that pressure is perceived at every tier of the research sector. The effects of these uncertainties are widely felt, with potentially stressful repercussions for academics and research managers alike.

The research management profession works from both the factory floor to the board room of the research agenda. It reflects all tiers and subject areas of academia and is invariably charged with navigating academics and institutional portfolios through changing political, economic and social contexts. It is no surprise, then, that within this operating environment research managers must be resilient.

In psychological terms, resilience is the ‘process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress’ (“The Road to Resilience,” 2013). In other words, resilience is the ability to persist when things get tricky and bounce back when problems hit. Resilience is a key component in successfully managing ongoing stressful situations. At a personal level, when encountering anything we perceive as a threat, our bodies immediately ready us for action (‘fight or flight’) and switches on those functions which help us to survive. However, if the threat doesn’t go away, or we are faced with a series of threats, our response stays ‘on’. If not turned ‘off’, we become exhausted from the constant vigilance of looking for and dealing with a/the threat. In the workplace, this tends to corrode into burnout, depression and learned helplessness, all of which undermine personal wellbeing and by extension the long-term sustainability of research delivery. Resilience is crucial to ensure individuals and institutions alike feel equipped not only to endure but thrive in the face of continuing change.

So what can we do? How can we build both individual and institutional resilience to more successfully adapt to a changing research environment? Well, let’s take impact as an example of such change in recent years. The application of research to ‘real world’ problems is nothing new; indeed, problem-focused exploration forms the basis for many funding programmes worldwide. However, for the UK, the term ‘impact’ was more formally catapulted into significance with its weighted position in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment, bringing an immediate challenge to individuals and institutions alike. Impact suddenly became an assessable and comparative currency, with a financial reward for the victors. With little warning, the game had changed, and institutions needed to adapt or fall. Whilst it would be misleading to suggest the UK has come full circle in embracing impact, we have certainly witnessed a significant shift, as over time the sector started to recognise the opportunity to generate and showcase its contribution to the wider world. Institutions started realigning themselves towards research implementation and investing in staff to drive this new agenda. Individual impact officers – often operating in disconnected roles within institutions – started to galvanise a community of practice (e.g., the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) Impact Special Interest Group) to build a collective support. Individuals are increasingly less isolated, institutions are more expertly staffed, and the weight of requirement is progressively coupled with triumphant storytelling.

It is this suite of institutional investment, strategic realignment and collaborative professional growth which exemplifies the resilience of the research community to switch a challenge into an opportunity.

Ultimately, resilience is a personal and collective trait; we can each shift our minds to ‘opportunity’ rather than ‘challenge’, but it is imperative that organisations and communities rally in the same way. If change is poorly managed, pressure falls unequally onto individuals and particular types of institutions, leading to tensions and longer-term inequalities in the system. As the research management community continues to cement its place as a vital part of a changeable research ecosystem, communities of practice such as ARMA and NCURA are vital in supporting the growth of collective resilience within and beyond institutions.

This blog first appeared in NCURA Magazine and is posted here with its permission.

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