Challenges of creating research support services

Jan 31, 2011 by

The JISC is to be highly commended for funding work at the delicate interface between pure research and service development in the area of data management. It is excellent to see the way that the JISC, the RIN, the DCC and the British Library are now all pulling strongly in the same direction.  It means that the UK will remain a source of innovative developments of international importance.
However, typical JISC projects are of limited duration in comparison with those from other research funders (e.g. research councils: 3-5 years).  A year is a short time in which to achieve anything substantial and lasting, especially for small research groups like my own who face difficulties of appointing and retaining high quality staff on short contracts.  The situation is quite different for computing service departments or institutional library with permanent staff who can be seconded to one project and then another.  I believe this to be the most significant reason why so few genuine research groups, as opposed to service departments, apply for funding from the JISC.
Additionally, the JISC typically provides only a very short interval between formal advice of grant award and project start date.  These factors result in a number of inter-related problems:
  1. Since the University of Oxford does not permit a grant-holder to advertise for staff before receipt of the grant award letter, and because it takes on average 3 months to appoint a new member of staff, we lose a significant portion of the overall project duration to the recruitment lead time.
  2. There is no reliable career development path for developers and researchers working on JISC projects, which deters many good candidates from even applying for such positions.  It is extraordinarily hard to find anyone already skilled and competent who is prepared accept a one-year contract.
  3. Appointed staff have no long-term security, making it more likely that they will leave for more permanent positions before the project ends.  An academic colleague of mine recently said: “I can no longer live on temporary contracts, which used to be 5 years and are now only 5 months; what a world”.
  4. The uncertainties of the grant funding lottery and the absence of reliable bridging funds from the University cause further staff losses between projects.  I recently lost from my group a valued researcher and developer with significant international recognition because he needed greater continuity of income to sustain a young family.
  5. Relevant technical skills and knowledge of the academic environment cannot reliably be maintained across projects.  Many new projects are therefore forced to start from scratch, and coherence of development across multiple projects is difficult to maintain, particularly where specialist technical skills are needed.  This fragmentation of the development process means that many JISC-funded projects, after showing initial success, are abandoned, with resulting waste of research investment.
Suggestions for improvement include:
  1. Greater flexibility in the start and end dates of projects, to enable time for staff recruitment where required, and to schedule participation of in-post staff.
  2. For projects that have been granted time extensions, flexibility in the timing of expenditure and in the final budget accounting of JISC money that has already been remitted to the project institution.
  3. That consideration be given, even in these hard times, to the funding of a limited number of centres of development excellence for three or more years, thereby sustaining research teams with proven track records, as long practised by the Research Councils (with their admittedly deeper pockets).

Time to impact

One of the particular problems we face is the contrast between the JISC’s expectation of immediate benefits following a project’s end date, and the time it takes from initial development of an idea to its wider acceptance by the research community. Developments we completed a year ago are only now becoming noticed by the relevant research communities, partly because of lag time in the scientific publication process.
Short, agile projects, like those of the JISC Rapid Innovation programmes, are valuable in allowing new ideas to be explored and tested, but are generally too short to permit development into complete tools or services.   If we are to develop tools and services that truly address the needs of our users, we must take the time to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to review and comment upon our prototypes.  Since they are always busy working on their own research projects, which have their own deadlines, such meetings take significantly longer to schedule than one might anticipate, putting further pressure on short projects.

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This document is published under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that the original author and source are credited.

Originally published on 15 Feb 2010 by David Shotton

1 Comment

  1. Peter Murray-Rust

    I agree completely (BTW David and I have twin JISC projects).

    Another problem is in PI time. It takes much the same time to prepare a grant for 6 month as to 2 years. It takes at least as much time to take it through the admin system (often geared to RCUK grants rather than JISC). If you have – as we do – about 6 JISC grants of ca 8 months average that’s 1 4-year RCUK grant – much less hassle. We are always worrying about when X comes to the end of her contract, when Y can/not start.

    Then there are the project meetings. We are glad to go to the communal meetings – that’s a great strength of JISC. But they do take time and also they take time to find suitable dates. And the reporting. Again 6 mini repports is a llot more than 1 RCUK report. We are fortunate to have a project manager here paid out of the bits and bobs. Without Brian we would crash.

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