Building a Culture of Research

Building a Culture of Research was the theme of a panel session sponsored by the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) that kicked off the 2016 Maine Regulatory Training and Ethics Center (MeRTEC) Research Integrity and Regulatory Compliance Symposium, held in Portland, Maine, on May 19 and 20. Joseph Tomaras, Director of Sponsored Programs and Research Compliance at Bates College, presented Focusing on your Organization: Coalition‐Building and Change Management in Building a Culture of Research. Cara Martin-Tetreault provided a different perspective in her presentation, Focusing on Yourself: Professional Development and Organizational Learning in Creating a Culture of Research. Together, these talks went beyond regulatory compliance and best practices to offer a unique perspective on creating a supportive and effective research culture.

Tomaras presented a unique historical, scientific, and philosophical view of the research institution. He began by introducing Wilhelm von Humbolt, founder of the first modern university in 1810. Berlin University (now Humbolt University) was modeled on the principles of teaching, research, and shared governance (or “service”). Over the next hundred years, other universities were created (or remodeled) based on these ideals, including the University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. In the early 1900s, American colleges and universities veered away from this model to create liberal arts colleges with education-focused curriculum, and polytechnics focused on science and engineering. Following World War II, however, a number of forces combined to drive a return to the Humboltian model of institutions that combine research, teaching, and service. The GI Bill and expansion of public university systems caused significant Post-WWII increases in enrollment, while federal sponsorship of science and engineering research and development spurred growth of research programs.

Tomaras argued that the Humboltian model is the “regulative ideal” responsible for the creation of the field of research administration, and is the environment in which faculty are most comfortable and productive. Effective research administrators, therefore, need to recognize the competing priorities that faculty have for teaching and service and support their research activities within that context. This is especially true, said Tomaras, at primarily undergraduate institutions where research may move at a slower pace or have fewer faculty engaged. He suggested that research administrators show their support by attending faculty presentations, taking a genuine interest in the process of research, and getting to know the investigators beyond the tasks of grants administration.

Martin-Tetreault offered a perspective on supporting the research culture from an individual perspective. Her talk was subtitled How do you identify and retain what you need to know to promote the research enterprise? In order to provide the best support possible for investigators, she argued, administrators need to nurture their own professional development. Identifying their job expectations and goals, gaps in knowledge or skills, and taking action to learn and grow as needed are essential. Networking with peers not only provides support and informational resources, but can provide opportunities for developing team strategies that could reduce workload. Developing relationships with investigators can be a key to earning their trust and providing them with comprehensive support, an idea which echoed Tomaras’ suggestion. Martin-Tetreault suggested that effective research administrators “have the heart of a teacher, spirit of a cheerleader, strength to advocate for a PI, and diplomatic skills to represent your institution.” This can be accomplished by asking questions, being visible, working with peers, and taking time off occasionally for self-renewal.

Despite their differing approaches, both Martin-Tetrault and Tomaras offered constructive ways of thinking about research administration; taking a higher-level perspective on the issue enables the examination of the important underlying questions that research administrators must answer about the direction of their programs. In doing so, both speakers helped advance the conversation about research administration beyond mere compliance and into a more active mode of thinking about doing productive, ethical research.

What do you think? If you’re part of an academic research institution, how do you feel the Humbolitan model supports – or does not support – research administration as we current practice it? Is the individual model better suited to modern (or current) research administration?