The research landscape in Australia is complex. Funding is labyrinthine, and even industry professionals struggle to stay abreast of every possible rule change, roll-out, new initiative or reporting requirement. In this industry, recent years have seen abrupt or strange changes to funding rules, new demands on research administration, and unexpected changes to expected reporting requirements.
Organisations of the higher education industry typically have two core priorities: education, and research. They rightly view administration as a structure that supports those objectives rather than an end in itself, and most research officers would agree with that perspective. But this puts administrators in the unenviable position of responding to the challenges of a changeable landscape with a very minimal research administration team.
Research administration is asked to be quick, but also thorough. Administrators have to be up to date with events occurring on-site, but capable of working from home at a moment’s notice. Research administration is supposed to be accessible from anywhere, but ever so mindful of our cybersecurity obligations. And the disruptive influence of generative AI is as yet uncertain, but many of us have the nagging sense that it’s waiting just around the next corner to create a new wave of change.
Working in this industry has never felt more complex. And yet, for many of us, our teams seem to be shrinking, when compared to the work laid before us.
Staff juggle changeable priorities, take on new tasks and wear many, many hats. Minimalist, streamlined teams might seem cost-effective on paper, but they are going to need maximally effective tools to get the job done.
The key priorities for research administration in the coming years include:
- Get your data in order. This means strong data governance and impeccable data management. Information pertaining to grants, research projects, researchers, milestones, applications, scholarships and more should be clean, accurate, up-to-date, accessible and centralised. Whatever else might happen, we know the future will be digitised, so set yourself up for success.
- Make sure your systems work together. Some of our pandemic-era digital transformations have left research institutions with slap-dash, “good enough,” solutions occupying various research niches. These are temporary solutions that have not been retired or updated. They are piecemeal and overlapping, or otherwise don’t “speak” to each other. Whether it’s maintenance, upgrading, switching or divesting, take steps!
- End double handling. Taking information from one system and manually inputting it into a second one is incredibly common in research institutions, but the practice should be reduced where necessary and eliminated where possible. This double-handling introduces the possibilities of a data breach and human error, but it’s also just a big time-sink. Human labour is valuable. Double-handling is wasteful.
- Deploy staff where it matters. As powerful and useful as modern technology is, we have not yet invented the machine learning algorithm that can adequately stand in for the best of human judgement. Offload mind-numbing, repetitive data work onto technology, and make sure your staff are available for work that requires their experiences, emotional intelligence, and critical thought.
Undoubtedly, the challenges of the coming years in research are manifold. But administrative teams can still come out on top if they make sure they’ve got the right tools for the job.