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IRMI Annual Conference 2021: Celebrating the Indian research management community

Adita Joshi

The India Research Management Initiative (IRMI) of DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance aims to strengthen research ecosystems in India by building capacity for research management and creating a community of practice that support knowledge creation and innovation for addressing global challenges.” Its first annual conference brought together various stakeholders including research managers and administrators, policymakers, funders, and private sector professionals on a virtual platform.

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The digital debut of the annual conference of the India Research Management Initiative (IRMI) of DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance on 1 – 5 February, 2021 could not have been timelier. The current pandemic has highlighted the role of research management professionals as facilitators of quick and effective action by researchers to provide science and technology (S&T) solutions sought by society. 

Building a professional community is necessary to transform isolated but successful career paths into a norm. Savita Ayyar, Lead, IRMI, mentioned the International Network of Research Management Societies meeting (INORMS Edinburgh, 2018), where she was one of 7 Indian Research Managers and Administrators (RMAs) in attendance. Each of these individuals, who felt quite isolated in India, experienced an adrenaline rush as they identified themselves as a part of a huge community of 1100 RMAs. For these 7 forerunners, the INORMS2018 experience provided what India lacked – the presence of a peer group with a strong voice.

IRMI was thus themed on building a close-knit professional community of research managers and administrators, bringing best practices in research management to advance Indian S&T outcomes. It also aimed to encourage policy advocacy for promoting research management (RM) culture and aid career development for RMAs across Indian research institutions. Rooted in a 2016 scoping study that studied research management practices across 5 research institutions in India, the effort sprouted into a pilot phase in 2018, followed by the launch of other initiatives in 2019 and the IRMI Annual Conference in 2021.

Forty-two participants, mostly working in RMA roles across research institutes (public and private), medical universities, public health organizations, and non-governmental organizations, presented their work and perspective at the conference.

The conference planning committee comprised some of the pioneering research managers in India, who have contributed to developing research management structures at their own institutions. The event was structured to highlight various aspects of research management. The conference included pre-award and post-award grant management training workshops to orient the participants to specific aspects of research management. During the Vignette sessions, RMAs spoke about their roles, career journeys, and challenges, shared tips on developing skill-sets, processes, and tools, shared advice on building a successful career and discussed multiple facets of their professional lives. 

Informal evening networking sessions allowed the participants to use the platform for self-expression and raise key issues pertaining to the research management ecosystem in India. Panel discussions brought together institutional leaders, funders and RMAs from India and overseas and aimed to bring together diverse perspectives on the role of RMAs.

Participants at the pre-meeting workshops

Developing the research management ecosystem in India

The conference opened with remarks by senior scientific leadership from funding agencies. The keynote speakers acknowledged the necessity of developing the Indian research management landscape and provided suggestions and insights on building a vibrant research management ecosystem in India. 

Vasan Sambandamurthy, CEO, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance, discussed the purpose of IRMI and its four cardinal pillars – capacity building of RMAs, creating a research management community, spreading awareness of the need and value of research management and how it can help improve the competitiveness of research institutions. He also spoke about IRMI flagship programs aimed at enhancing existing human resource and support systems catering to research management needs at scientific institutions. 

K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, highlighted the need for institutions to engage in collaborative research both internally and externally. He described two major roles of research management — (1) to position the institutes for competitive grants within the standard ecosystem and (2) to focus on the enormous resources available in the social sector, e.g., for public health. He used an analogy of three trains’ – Train of Science (slowest), Train of Society (demands faster results) and Train of Politics (fastest, wants immediate results) – to define the role of RMAs as people who can flip between the slow and fast trains. In the process, they transfer ideas and facilitate solutions demanded by society. 

Simon Kay, Head, International Operations and Partnerships, Science, at Wellcome Trust, shared insights from initiatives undertaken by Wellcome Trust on building local research management communities such as IRMI in India and AESA (Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) in Africa. Kay advised Indian institutions availing India Alliance fellowships to act as torch-bearers for promoting research management culture. He laid emphasis on achieving financial sustainability, aligned leadership, and consistent standards, training and career paths for research management. 

Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, highlighted collaboration for outcome-driven science” as the key feature that helped us meet the urgent pandemic needs and placed research management into the context. She also mentioned that feedback from researchers on how they want their research to be managed will be important to build research management initiatives in India. She gave examples of emerging S&T cluster concepts and suggested a role for RMAs in mobilizing resources and finances, focussing on policy perspectives of research ethics and sharing knowledge. She advocated spreading research management culture across universities and invited IRMI to discuss approaches to increasing the Indian RMA pool. 

The speakers at the opening session set the stage by highlighting the local need for research management initiatives as well as providing a few important pointers on how and what to develop in the Indian research management space.

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From top left, clockwise : Vasan Sambandamurthy, K VijayRaghavan, Simon Kay, Renu Swarup

The global perspective

The IRMI Annual Conference introduced research management as a global profession by inviting key international speakers to showcase how different countries are developing their research management ecosystem. Shahid Jameel, Ashoka University, Sonepat, talked about the research-funding divide and highlighted some of the gaps in research management processes and systems in the Indian context. Simon Kerridge, University of Kent, presented data from the Research Management As A Profession (RAAAP) survey — a global initiative to map research management across several countries.

Makiko Takahashi, Vice-Chair of Research Manager and Administrator Network, Japan (RMAN‑J) shared learnings from establishing research management as a profession in Japanese Universities and invited the participants to the upcoming INORMS2021 Conference to be held in Hiroshima in May 2021. The panel discussed the difference between global and country-specific trends regarding the role of research management in academia-industry partnerships. They also speculated on how policy changes may allow the development of career paths for RMAs, which would help integrate them into the mainstream.

Policy matters

One of the sessions focused on highlighting the links between national policy and supporting research management at institutions. Implementation of recommendations made in the National Education Policy (NEP2020) and the draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP2020) requires research management support at institutions. 

India, being home to about 967 Universities, offers huge potential for integrating research management in higher education. Anirban Chakraborty, Ashoka University, Sonepat, pointed to the role of universities in internationalizing higher education and the importance of research management in this process. Vijai Dharmamony, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, described the role of research management offices in trust-building with corporates and philanthropists to attract CSR funding at research institutions. 

Facilitating extramural funding

Extramural funding is the lifeline of S&T research. Vandana Gambhir, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, and Vineetha Raghavan, NCBS, discussed success stories, roadblocks, and the role of research managers in drafting collaborative agreements and attracting international funds. Satyajit Mayor, NCBS, appreciated the role of the Research Development Office at NCBS in facilitating an increase of almost 50% in procuring extramural grants at the institute. 

Shantala Haridass, IndiaBioscience, presented an overview of the International Grants Awareness Program (iGAP) funded by an IRMI research management grant under India Alliance. She spoke about the use of IndiaBioscience’s digital platform for organizing webinars, podcasts, posting articles and providing a database of mentors and experts for Indian life science researchers to facilitate success at international funding. She described IndiaBioscience as a cohesive partner that brings together international and national funding agencies, review committees, grant applicants and grant awardees for promoting international research in India. 

Shantala Hari Dass, discussing the iGAP project

LS Shashidhara, IISER Pune and Ashoka University, Sonepat, emphasized that RMAs must encourage faculty to take risks in uncharted territories of interdisciplinary research. The panellists underscored the value of RMAs in mapping and attracting the right kind of grants for the institute, providing support to scientists involved in multi-institute projects and challenging scientists to explore emerging and future areas in interdisciplinary science to maintain a global competitive edge.

Building partnerships

Knowledge does not stay within borders. Research management facilitation is vital and indispensable for collaborative research. Naresh Sharma, IISER Pune, discussed the function of research management offices in formalizing successful international partnerships. Athulya Arvind, Senior Partnerships Advisor (India), Kings College-London, described the specific role of liaison officers in lowering barriers for creating partnerships. 

Tanya Friedrichs, Head Research & Innovation Sector, Delegation of the European Union to India, pinpointed the role of research management in overcoming duplication in research and the value of collaboration in repurposing already established research outcomes to adapt to local needs. The panellists discussed the role of RMAs in reporting barriers such as legal compliance, funding and regulatory restrictions, credit transfer issues, and facilitating policies that enable a smooth road to international partnership.

On ethics and biosafety

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Panellists for the discussion on Ethics and Biosafety and the Cross-talk with Funded Programs”

Biomedical research in India is expanding by leaps and bounds and with this comes the challenge of ensuring compliance with national regulations. Mohammed Manzoor Akheel, Immuneel Therapeutics Pvt. Ltd. informed participants about various statutory committees and their purpose, composition, guiding documents and compliance requirements. He also highlighted the role of research enablers in the administration of these processes. 

Vasantha Muthuswamy, President, Forum for Ethics Review Committees in India, reiterated the need for institutions to have the requisite regulatory structures for ethics and biosafety in place. Shinjini Bhatnagar, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, advocated for the role of the ethics secretariat in facilitating public health and translational research. The panellists brought forth the role of RMAs in aligning the objectives of the funded projects with ethics and ensuring that processes and protocols are in alignment with national regulatory standards. 

Capacity building and career development in research management

Research management positions are presently isolated and available at very few institutes in India. There is an impending risk of losing the skill-base to the nature of soft positions or contractual employment. The final theme for the conference was the development of research management careers. Madhuri Dutta, George Institute of Global Health, presented the results of her analysis of the designations of research management professionals at international organizations along with suggestions for how these details could be mapped to existing career tracks for RMAs working at Indian funding agencies. Parallel structures could be developed at Indian research institutions to enable recruitment and career progression for RMAs. 

Asad Sahir, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Ropar, presented a framework for catching it early’, suggesting that young research scholars should be aligned and informed towards research management careers. The upshot of the discussion was sensitizing institutions to be creative about developing structures, systems and processes for developing a successful research management career track in India. The panel recommended that institutes should secure a few positions and have a grading system for RMAs.

Ponnari Gottipati presenting at the IRMI annual conference

In conclusion

The IRMI annual conference brought to light some significant issues that needed decisive deliberation and action at both institutional and national levels. These include — i) The role of RMAs in facilitating research funding, ethics and international partnerships ii) Mechanisms for ensuring the sustainability of research offices, including the use of institutional overheads, private funding and other sources to support RMAs iii) Designation, salary and career progression structures for RMAs in alignment with their funding agency counterparts iv) Training for RMAs in diverse aspects of their roles. 

The conference ended with several key messages including the role of institutional heads in adopting, expanding, and enabling research management and working closely with RMAs to get them integrated into their institutional networks, policy changes to promote robust career track for RMAs, and measures to strengthen the Indian research management community. It raised awareness of the role of RMAs in facilitating cutting-edge science in a local context. This was a first-of-its-kind conference for research management professionals in the Indian science and innovation ecosystem. It represented a conference of the RMAs, by the RMAs and for the RMAs”. 

The discussions at this conference emphasized how science cannot be done in silos and RMAs can be the best anchors and enablers to bring the best scientific minds together for solving problems and providing scientific solutions. Thus, IRMI can be perceived as a game-changer that is here not only to stay, but to succeed in developing a competitive research management ecosystem in India at par with global benchmarks.

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