New researchers hone skills at Stellenbosch workshop

05 May 2003

Learning the ropes: Jane Franco, left, chats to Christina Murray, Professor of Public Law, during the workshop for emerging researchers recently held in Stellenbosch.

Under the inspiring leadership of Professor Danie Visser, and in collaboration with the Research Office, the Law Faculty recently completed an extremely successful three-day retreat at Montfleur near Stellenbosch - the aim of which was to provide aspirant researchers with the tools they need for success.

This workshop, attended by 19 researchers, is part of a new Research Development Project being facilitated within UCT's Research Office, which has the objective of ensuring that this University is indeed a "research-led" institution.

Each of the participants had identified a topic to submit for accredited publication. The retreat was led by nine dedicated senior staff members from the Law Faculty, who provided a "safe" and nurturing environment for the discussion and development of each person's draft article.

Besides introductory presentations on the context of the project by the Research Office and generic input by the Law Faculty experts, each emerging researcher had the opportunity to present and workshop their draft with their peers and experienced leaders in the field.

It is hoped that the other faculties will follow suit in planning similar interventions in conjunction with the support offered by the Research Office.

The reasoning behind this project comes out of UCT's need to develop new research capacity as well as retain existing expertise on an institutional as well as national level, as has been well documented. The fact that UCT's rated researchers are passing through the system without sufficient attention being given to developing the next cadre of top researchers is of grave concern.

In this context, and in accordance with the Vice-Chancellor's vision for UCT to be an outstanding research university, a proposal on support strategies for developing and retaining research capacity was submitted to donors through the Development Office in September 2001.

Continuous consultation with the faculties as well as examples of best practice informed the proposal, and on receipt of funding from a donor (who wished to remain anonymous) in September 2002, the initiative was formally launched through a number of presentations to the Deans, Chairs of the Faculty Research Committees and the HODs.

The proposal was predicated on the fact that research support needs to be proactive, should enhance, rather than endanger, academic autonomy and that it should add value.

It further considers effective research capacity building as an ongoing process which includes the following activities (based in Research & Innovation): environmental scans (to track trends and changes and inform policy) identifying and promoting opportunities, building relations, accessing funding, providing advice and support, checking on financial and legal issues, monitoring and reporting (especially to funders), facilitating networks, partnerships and collaboration, facilitating exploitation of intellectual property, and developing appropriate procedures and strategies. The capacity building strategy is based on the core assumptions that research support has to be client centered and that the clientele is highly differentiated.

Furthermore, the system conceives research activity as a career characterised by different stages or levels of proficiency.

The new support framework established by the Research Office is underpinned by some structural changes and increased capacity in the Research Office.

Key phases in a university research career were taken as point of departure and developed into five main themes that constitute the framework of support. These are:
  • Launching your research career: Support structures for emerging researchers.
  • Gearing up your research career: How to grow your research profile
  • Maintaining the competitive edge: Support structures for established researchers
  • Drawing on the store of knowledge: Transfer of the senior skills base
  • Profiting from research: the innovation value chain.
The Research Office solicits experts to run the workshops, also from outside when there is no appropriate expertise in the faculties. This is done on a contractual or honorarium basis, using the donor funding as per the successful proposal.

Specific benchmarks have been established against which the Research Office will measure its performance in developing UCT's research capacity. These include improved accredited publication rate and NRF rating, as well as increasing grants income for emerging researchers.

Full implementation of the project, which is to run over five years, started in January 2003 with the appointment of Dr Lyn Holness as co-ordinator for a group of academic staff members identified as "emerging researchers".

Participation in the project is by no means compulsory, and as the initial interviews to assess each emerging researcher's particular needs were handled on a first come first served basis, the Research Office was confident it had a group of participants who were eager to profit from the new support structures.

To draw on the skills of senior researchers who leave on retirement, the status of Senior Research Scholar has been devised and formalised through Senate.

Successful workshops on Planning your research career and Writing a funding proposal have already taken place, with differentiated input for those from the SET disciplines as opposed to those in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Further interventions on Preparing for accredited publication and Prioritising completion of your doctorate are in the pipeline, as well as a range of interactive opportunities for more advanced researchers.

Although the Research Office initiative has been developed through consultation with the faculties, this needs to be an ongoing process in order to avoid duplication and to ensure effective dovetailing with existing structures.

It is hoped that the Law Faculty's example of harnessing Research Office support will inspire the other faculties and in so doing help ensure our strategic drive to be a research-led institution.

Dr Marilet Sienaert
Director: Research Office

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