University research changes lives for the better. It informs and enables evidence-based policymaking, yields advances in science and medicine, and finds solutions to global challenges.
Supporting research is a cornerstone of the ACU’s mission to build a better world through higher education, and enhancing the development of early-career researchers remains one of our top priorities. Through targeted funding schemes such as the Early Career Training Grants and Early Career Conference Grants for emerging academics, topical programmes such as the Blue Charter Fellowships and CIRCLE and our dedicated Supporting Research Community, we continue to expand opportunities for early-career researchers across and beyond the Commonwealth to build vital skills, raise their voices and gain the confidence to succeed in competitive international research environments.
As part of the Vitae Connections 2020 Conference on supporting research, the ACU chaired a virtual event on international perspectives to developing early career researchers. 68 attendees from 10 countries joined us for an insightful discussion featuring international speakers from Stellenbosch University, NMIMS and the University of Kent, as well as from the Wellcome Trust and Vitae.
Speakers highlighted their diverse approaches and experiences to developing early career researchers in the vital knowledge, skills and behaviours they need to succeed - such as sourcing funding, writing compelling applications, and choosing the right partners. They also shared strategies to nurture collaborative international partnerships, which has been central to the success of many research projects around the world.
These insights represent a valuable resource for universities, both as they adapt to new ways of working during COVID-19 and anticipate the research landscape beyond the pandemic. The need to support research has never been clearer, and we are grateful to all our speakers for sharing their knowledge and insights into this important topic. We would also like to thank all our attendees for submitting answers during the live Q&A and our speakers for kindly providing the answers.
You can find the questions and answers from the session below.
Dr Shamim Mondal, Associate Dean, Research and PhD, NMIMS, India
How can the lecture load be reduced for early career researchers, such that their time for training is not compromised?
Assuming that the early career researcher (ECR) has finished doctoral studies and is in an academic institution where research is valued, there may be several ways to accomplish this. One way is to have more senior faculty members, who are expert teachers, share a higher burden of teaching, especially to undergraduates. The ECRs may be allowed to teach a more research-based course to advanced students (Masters and beyond), which while not always reducing load, may align the teaching more effectively to research. In addition, use of PhD students as teaching assistants can also help in effectively reducing the teaching burden on ECRs.
Also, ECRs should be encouraged to focus narrowly on a few specific subjects to develop teaching expertise so that lessons learnt in the first year of curriculum development and pedagogy may carry over to subsequent years, hence lessening the burden over time. Too much experimentation in initial phases can lead to very high teaching burdens.
Lastly, mentorship from more senior colleagues is vital: they can share their own experiences and know-how in terms of becoming not only a good, but also an efficient teacher, and how to manage time more effectively across different responsibilities.
Dr Mondal is currently a Professor of Economics at the NMIMS School of Business Management (SBM). The SBM conducts weekly research seminars designed to nurture a strong and collaborative academic atmosphere. The seminar series are open to scholars from international partner universities. The SBM also convenes a Thesis Advisory Committee of scholars containing professors from USA, UK and other countries. The Committee is designed to help emerging academics better conceptualise research questions, engage in collaborations, and produce quality publications.
Dr Helen Leech, Researcher Development Officer, University of Kent, UK
What should universities do better to support leadership development of early career researchers in the Global South when they are training in the UK? What types of support do PhD students need to maintain collaborative research links after they return home?
At the University of Kent, we ran the Summer Vacation Research Competition over the last three years. Funding was made available for post-doctoral research assistants (PDRAs) to apply for small grants to carry out a short, independent research project. The funding also covers associated research costs, as well as the costs of employing an undergraduate research assistant. Through this competition, we provided an opportunity for early-career PDRAs to model grant writing and application processes, design an independent research project, gain a mentor, and get involved with short-listing, interviewing, and managing their research assistant. This development initiative paved the way for ECRs to have the confidence to apply for independent research grants and fellowships.
Continued research mentoring from PhD supervisors is vital to support PhD students when they return home. This mutually beneficial support is imperative, not only for the confidence of the PhD student but also for the maintenance of ongoing effective collaborative research links necessary for future funding applications.
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, researcher development workshops delivered by host institutions are now online. This may present an opportunity for the inclusion of recent PhD graduates to participate in training and support communities aimed at the next career stage. Technology may also hold the key for ECRs to take the initiative and expand their collaborative networks. For example, platforms such as Research Gate and Academia.edu already facilitate this process. In addition, a new smartphone app called ‘Research Network’ (soon to be released and available internationally) will allow researchers to create a profile and search for research collaborators from a specific research area and/or location.
As a Researcher Development Officer, Dr Leech works to build a resilient and robust research culture at the University of Kent. A range of early career researcher development support initiatives are available at the University, including a designated Researcher Development Programme (RDP) designed to equip postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers with important skills for success. A Researcher Development Working Group is also available, alongside various research and innovation services, including the Grants Factory and Early-Career Researcher Network (ECRN). The University of Kent is also part of the Eastern ARC, a new and innovative regional partnership in interdisciplinary research collaboration and training.
Dr Simon Kay, Head of International Operations, Wellcome Trust
How do we (in the UK & EU) encourage institutions to have a stronger stake in the training of their researchers in other countries when these researchers are often working on projects outside of their institutions?
You won’t be surprised, given my presentation which focussed on shifting the centre of gravity and decision-making to institutions and academic leaders in the countries where they are receiving training, that my simple answer is to remain hands-off and arms-length with our funding arrangements.
The location of leadership should be within the institution where the researcher is based, while institutions in the UK and EU can have a role to play in setting certain expectations for the development of their researchers (for example, with regards to research culture).
If strong institutional cultures for researcher training and development are being upheld, in the long run it will not matter where researchers are being trained.
Dr Kay leads on the Wellcome Trust’s efforts to build biomedical and health research capacity in Africa and Asia. His teams at Wellcome work closely with the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) and with the Wellcome Trust/Department of Biotechnology (DBT) India Alliance, and also provide governance and operational support to major programmes in Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.
Dr Kay is working to develop funding structures which motivate intra-African collaboration, encourage host institutions to adopt policies addressing inclusivity and diversity, and take a stronger stake in the training of their researchers. For more information on the Wellcome Trust and funding opportunities for postdoctoral research, click here.
Meriel Flint O’Kane, Head of Business and Programme Delivery, the Association of Commonwealth Universities
Virtual platforms may be a new normal for developed countries during COVID-19, but many researchers in Africa and beyond still experience barriers to access due to the digital divide. How can we address the disparities of access to technology post COVID-19?
In an increasingly digitalised world, persistent disparities in access to technology present significant barriers for researchers in both developed and developing countries. Tellingly, in a recent digital engagement survey of academic and institutional staff in ACU member universities across the Commonwealth, only 19% of respondents from low-income countries reported having access to broadband compared to 83% of respondents from high-income countries.
Governments have a significant role to play in reducing the digital divide. It is essential that key policymakers recognise the vital contributions of research to society and prioritise funding to level the playing field for researchers globally. Investments in strategic public-private partnerships in the higher education sector, as well as increased support for digital transformation initiatives within universities, will be key to laying the groundwork for long-term ICT infrastructure development beyond COVID-19.
University leaders and staff members, telecommunications companies, global employers, researchers and students all have a role to play in shaping a common agenda for the future of digital higher education that emphasizes access and inclusion. Going forward, we must also ensure the vitality of global multi-stakeholder platforms which foster knowledge-sharing and enable effective international collaboration to address common challenges.