Putting research careers at the core: Findings from Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2016

The 2016 Vitae Researcher Development International Conference (12-13 September) addressed the strategic and practical implications of policy developments, institutional capacity and best practice to support the careers of researchers. Led and managed by CRAC – the UK charity dedicated to active career learning and development – the annual event saw a 400-strong delegate attendance (the largest ever), and welcomed a range of research professionals from researcher development practitioners, trainers and career specialists to heads of graduate schools, funders to pro-vice chancellors, and research managers.

The Conference kicked off with an opening plenary session focusing on the strategic and global context for developing researchers. Three speakers – David Sweeney (HEFCE), Dr Conor O’Carroll (European Commission Steering Group) and Prof Matt Lambon Ralph (University of Manchester) – set the tone for the discussions, with Sweeney and Dr O’Carroll highlighting two of the most pressing issues discussed throughout the conference: the future landscape of UK research policy and funding, and the potential contained within open science.

The Future Landscape

The presentation from Sweeney on the future landscape of UK research policy and funding urged the audience to use their voices to get involved with shaping and implementing reforms relating to British research. He explained reforms under the new UKRI, which will see seven of the Councils reflecting the functions of the existing Research Councils, one which will reflect the functions of Innovate UK and one, Research England, which will be established to undertake the England-only functions in relation to research and knowledge exchange that are currently performed by HEFCE. He also hinted at the REF scheduled for 2021; Sweeney’s closing remarks honed in on his belief that success in the future will depend on all researchers working together to engage with reforms to the research sector that are ultimately inevitable.

Outside of Sweeney’s opening address, the conference also highlighted the need for researchers to be internationally mobile and able to work collaboratively, physically and virtually across all research cultures in order to stay abreast in the global enterprise climate of research in the 21st century. Additionally, by acknowledging the uncertainty that the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union has placed on the UK research system, Vitae and its presenters turned their attention towards the growth of research activity in China and Asia, as well as Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

The Conference also highlighted the fact that research is becoming increasingly competitive. Individual researchers are under pressure to publish, obtain funding and translate their research into impact, while Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are finding it harder than ever before to acquire academic positions. This is likely due to the fact while the world’s population of researchers has grown by 21% since 2007, the number of academic and research positions have not kept pace with this trend. In light of this challenge, Prof Lambon Ralph’s address focussed on ways to continuously attract researchers in a changing and challenging external environment, while Dr O’Carroll considered open science and the implications it can – and will – have on researcher development.

Open Science

After undertaking a poll, Vitae found that 64% of the researchers involved wanted to know more about open science, open research and open data.

Open science is currently inciting change in the way scientific research is conducted, communicated, accessed and shared. It embraces the opportunities offered by the internet and encompasses a multitude of practices in which scientific knowledge can be viewed and disseminated among researchers and the general public. Specifically, it refers to the ‘opening up [of] the research process by making all of its outcomes, and the way in which these outcomes were achieved, publicly available on the World Wide Web’. Effectively, it makes research visible and accessible to all, it encourages a more inclusive research process, and it allows citizens to participate in scientific research as well as re-use scientific information.

However, despite the many positives of open science data, many academics and institutions are worried that it may adversely impact on the career progression of ECRs. Even Dr O’Carroll himself acknowledged that, at the moment, PhD students can compromise or limit their career by publishing their findings through open access platforms. And yet, despite the age-old reliance on the Impact Factor of peer-reviewed journals, Dr O’Carroll showed that an article’s count is often far less than the journal itself; the Impact Factor suggests that a paper should be cited a certain number of times, but the numbers do not prove this to be true.

In light of this, Dr O’Carroll believes that the development of a researcher’s career can, and should, go beyond academic publication alone. This sentiment led him to talk about the pilot actions for open access and open data already present in Horizon 2020, as well as confirming that open science will be embedded within the European Research Area and integrated into the EU Framework Programmes from as early as next year. This will ultimately mean that open access will become a mandatory requirement of all successfully funded projects.

Looking Forward

Despite the current and forthcoming challenges faced by the research community, Vitae is committed to extending its reach. It is also particularly keen to continue developing working relationships with the institutions and research funders that are pursuing excellence in researcher career development.

Vitae will continue to drive forward the following aims over the 2016-17 academic year:

  • Improving the policy environment for researchers and research careers
  • Helping institutions to implement talent management programmes for researchers
  • Emphasising the importance of professional development provision within institutions
  • Empowering individual researchers to drive their own career development and raise their own potential

The next Vitae Conference will be held in Birmingham on 11-12 September 2017, wherein the Vitae 2016-17 annual report shall also be released.

By Emma Wootton, Idox

Idox supports further and higher education institutions and researchers in their bid for funding via a dedicated suite of solutions including GRANTfinder 4 Education and RESEARCHconnect. For further details, please email grants.marketing@idoxgroup.com

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