How do you solve a problem like Maria?

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For those of you who have heard it in the ‘Sound of Music’ the song ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ really captures the feeling most of us in the Research Excellence Team (RET) at Cranfield University and probably colleagues across the University have felt over the past 2.5 years.

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? … Unpredictable as weather…  [They are] gentle…wild…a riddle…a headache…an angel.

Are these the vagaries of academic life, researchers and the roles of research management that Rogers and Hammerstein had in mind?

18 months ago, RET was finally in place and set up to provide a function that did not previously exist at the University. Academics and colleagues across the University were not sure how to interact with us or the support we could offer. Similarly, the team needed to learn the needs of colleagues across the University, to be best placed to support them. How do you solve a problem like research support indeed! Are we there to add bureaucracy (we definitely hope not)? Will our value added service be appreciated? How do you prevent stepping on other people’s toes?

Therefore, it was great to have our contributions recognised – firstly by our Director of Research and Innovation (Dr Chris Thompson) who nominated us for this award, and then by the ARMA community to receive the Research Management Team of the Year 2017 award. Looking back, it has been an interesting journey. For the first year or so, the focus was largely on relationship building and obtaining a better understanding of the needs of the academics and colleagues in other Professional Service Units across the University. During this period, it felt like we were justifying our existence as an additional overhead most days! However, the team of people brought together to form the RET had some things going for them (lucky us!). There was a specific focus for the direction of travel from the Head of the RET (Dr Jen Fensome) that the provision of a ‘value-added, customer-centric service’ was key. The team members that were recruited also all had a positive, can-do approach.

This initial period was also full of establishing new processes and resources to support researchers, whilst working in collaboration with them to ensure that these systems are matched to their needs. These include:

  • Increased awareness of funding opportunities, by working closely with Research Professional and establishing strong relationships with Research Councils and other funding agencies, hosting a large number of visits to underpin this.
  • Establishing strong and trusted relationships with research staff across all Schools. Team members spend one day a week embedded within each department, offering one-to-one support.
  • Establishing a process map for guiding researchers through the bidding process, including co-ordinating support from other Professional Service Units.
  • Created a bank of exemplar bids and numerous information leaflets made available on the Intranet.
  • Led the development and introduction of a new online system for managing research ethics applications.
  • Led the delivery of a new researcher development strategy and developed and delivered a number of training courses for this. RET have also introduced a well-received fellowship development programme. Funding agency colleagues who have delivered training on this programme rated it highly.
  • Developed a number of reporting and support services to help academics prepare for REF 2021, including a well-received, on-line impact capture tool.

So what has the outcome of all this been? We have increased the number of research proposals submitted and won.  In this financial year, we are on target to have submitted 12.5% more high quality applications than the previous year. Cranfield has also achieved its target of being elevated within EPSRC’s communication tiers as a result of our cumulative value of competitively won funding moderated by success rate.  Cranfield researchers have also received three new EPSRC first grants this year, tripling the success rate over previous years.   Cranfield has also seen a significant increase in the level of funding received from BBSRC and NERC. The team also worked closely with a fellowship candidate which led to Cranfield’s first ever ERC Fellowship being awarded this year.

Have we fully solved the problem? Definitely not! But we have tried our best to be well on our way to solving at least parts of it, and glad the ARMA community seems to agree.


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