The project has been carried out in the two departments at Bologna University since the late 2010.
The aims have been to introduce and promote research management among different target-groups of participants within the departments: researchers, PhD students and research fellows, on the one hand, research managers and support staff on the other. Dealing with research and its management means to raise issues making both the content and the frame of the term, from the knowledge of grants to financial regulations and bids writing, among others.
Bologna University has been shaped as a Multi-Campus project in late 1995 and nowadays it counts over 85,000 students and 6,000 staff, both academics and administrators. The University in 2010 (as today under restructuring) consisted of 23 faculties and 70 departments to count only those based in Bologna, with units, staff and researchers spread everywhere. For this reason, departments were not used to collaborate, each performing separately from all the others and from the whole university.
Within each department, target-groups of participants to research have their own niche of activity; the department comes to be seen as a two-sides box of expertise: on the one hand, professors and researchers with their scientific discipline-base background and, on the other, support staff, with their high rate of expertise in financial issues and university regulations. The two sides don’t frequently collaborate, if not when problems arise and a solution has to be found.
Our reasons to promote sharing and communication between the two groups were driven by the demand to have some expertise in research management and some knowledge of university regulations to be spread around. The findings should lead trust for researchers when dealing with administrators and motivation (especially true in times of uncertainty and restructuring). Our belief was that people in research can perform better when they are used to working with professionals in charge of day-to-day management of their research as well as when information about research management can be early spread around along the project. That’s the kind of setting we are moving in when launching our initiative.
THE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT INITIATIVE
The project had its starting point when the Department of Statistical Sciences took the decision to revise all its Quality Assurance (QA) procedures and to communicate such procedures to all the staff. The second stage was about shaping procedures dealing with sharing and communicating European and International research opportunities.
All the participants to research were involved, from researchers (Professors, research fellows and PhD) to support staff (administrative, ICTs, and librarians potentially beneficial to research); weekly and thematic meetings were carried out with the aim to spread research contents and interest all around, especially to find the involvement of younger researchers, but also to raise the degree of expertise applied to research grants belonging to all the groups as well as motivation of such young researchers.
At this stage other departments were invited to join the initiative and share their expertise around research issues and the Department of Mathematics joined the project then. Title of some of the training courses provided: all about bureaucracy and university regulations, main funding schemes, ICT and library support services to strengthen opportunities in research, among others. Meetings have been always carried out in a rather informal way: according to the topic, professional speakers were invited (from staff and academics) and engaged with some open discussions with participants.
The core has surely been the engagement of young researchers not so used to working jointly with support staff but bringing in strong motivation in raise their degree of expertise to be applied to research grants; they have been the ones willing to share prompt feedbacks with support staff on research management. One more key point given by the direct and first time engagement of support staff as speakers and some way tellers of their own day-to-day duties.
All the documents of the QA review and of all the thematic seminars were posted on the web site of the departments with open access to all the potential users; official documents explaining some of the trickiest procedures sent directly by the two Heads of Department; emails sent to all the staff and training courses scheduled to spread all the information around the departments so to involve as much staff as possible. An inner-web site was set up to spread both information and comments all around; all the potential users were given access so to keep up-to-date the contents and give prompt opportunities to all the others (Stat4Research).
Some indicators, collected and analyzed after each of the seminars by questionnaires, have reported a relevant raise in the number of applications as well as a wider range of funding schemes approached from researchers, also pioneers; moreover, the perception of collaboration among researchers and support staff in the two departments has been assessed as “High level” by the same participants in questionnaires.
Motivation among participants came as one of the immediately tangible findings, derived by the early integration of the different groups. All the actors have their own peculiarities and needs when dealing with research but some of the activities carried out have been seen as opportunities to work together, integrate skills, shape a new shared framework of research in the two departments; communication and collaboration have led trust and strengthened recognition of knowledge and professionalism lying in each of the two research sides: researchers and PhDs brought their scientific experience and methods whilst support staff their own on university regulations and financial issues.
The experience of communicating and sharing expertise in research management has given evidence to bridge the gap between professionals and researchers, so to professionalize all the research practitioners and bridge the collaboration gap among departments of the same University. The way forward seems to call for a further development of the project: sharing expertise and integrate differently aged and experienced groups is also the means to drive the sustainability of the whole university and to change the common way to approach research.