Dani Guzman, Ex Libris
Research is at the core of higher education institutions’ success. To better understand how institutions are meeting the challenges of today’s research environment, we sat down with Dr. Martin Kirk, director of research operations for King’s College London. (You can listen to the full audio of the interview below.) Dr. Kirk compares the task of leading world-class university research to launching a spacecraft to the moon.
Successfully completing a moonshot requires talented astronauts piloting the spacecraft, he explains, as well as fuel to get them to the moon and back. It also involves reducing drag on the spacecraft so that it can escape the Earth’s gravity.
In this analogy, the astronauts are the researchers and the fuel is the infrastructure supporting them, such as facilities, equipment and grants. Universities can reduce the drag force slowing research down, Kirk says, by reducing the administrative burden that researchers have to contend with, like locating potential funding sources, developing grant proposals and measuring the impact of success.
Every time a piece of research is mentioned in a policy document or Wikipedia article, every time someone tweets about it—these are all important indicators of the impact it’s having.
“Any amount of time that researchers have to spend on administration is time taken away from their productivity,” he observes. “My job is to reduce this burden as much as possible and allow them to focus on their actual research more effectively.”
The good news for universities, he says, is that advancements in technology have led to a new generation of software that can simplify business processes quite dramatically. Institutions now have a key opportunity to apply cutting-edge technologies to improve research administration—and this starts with understanding how IT systems can be deployed to facilitate the research lifecycle.
“In general, I think universities have chronically under-invested in business process technologies,” says Kirk. At King’s College London, Kirk and his colleagues in the Research & Researchers Function are trying to change that. They’re looking at some of the main friction areas of the research lifecycle to see how technology might streamline these processes.
For instance, “costing a project can take weeks,” Kirk says. “With cloud-based systems and automated workflows, we can estimate costs in real time instead of using a slow, paper-based process.”
Locating potential funding sources is another administrative challenge. King’s College is using Research Professional, an extensive database of research grants and funding news from Ex Libris, to discover new opportunities and stay on top of the latest developments in the field.
Yet another administrative burden involves measuring the impact of university research. A key challenge in doing this effectively, Kirk says, is that journal citations don’t tell the full story—especially as open-access publishing has begun to take off. One of the more encouraging developments in recent years, he says, is the emergence of alternative metrics that can create a fuller picture of how research is making an impact.
“There’s a lot of research today that isn’t being published in scholarly journals,” Kirk notes. “Every time a piece of research is mentioned in a policy document or Wikipedia article, every time someone tweets about it—these are all important indicators of the impact it’s having. We’re a long way from getting this right, but at least we’re having the conversation. And the good news is, funders are starting to acknowledge these alternative metrics as well.”
King’s College is experimenting with a few different platforms for measuring the impact of its research across a wide range of online venues. However, Kirk says there are still “lots of shortcomings” with these solutions.
“We have 500 different funding sources at King’s, and everyone has different conditions for how we spend the money,” Kirk says. “There is intense pressure on us to draft better and better proposals. Fortunately, we have systems that can help us locate new funding opportunities and improve our metrics. We’re getting better at helping researchers understand and pursue the opportunities that are out there, so they can continue to develop world-class research.”
Listen to the full interview with Martin Kirk:
February 3, 2020