The Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Service Excellence celebrate and recognise outstanding service by staff, including activities, initiatives, practices and/or projects that have contributed to the delivery of exceptional or significantly improved services to University of Cape Town (UCT) staff and students. It is aimed specifically at professional, administrative support and services (PASS) staff.
The exceptional commitment, expertise and energy of the Health Sciences Faculty Research Office at UCT received acknowledgement when it won the Vice-Chancellor’s Service Excellence Award for 2021. “This award means a lot to us,” said Dr Yolande Harley, the director of the Faculty Research Office. “It’s fantastic, and understandable, that academic staff receive accolades all the time; but it’s not built into the system for PASS staff in the university to receive recognition in the same way. That’s why an award like this is so important.”
“People recognise the work that support staff are doing; we are an enabling force.”
Carlette Hlungwani, the research intelligence manager in the Faculty Research Office, said, “We are unique in the sense that in the whole university, we are the only faculty that has an established research office.” She believes this award gives recognition to the research office as a professional entity. “People recognise the work that support staff are doing; we are an enabling force,” she said.
The Health Sciences Faculty Research Office has evolved over the past decade. In 2010 it was decided to have dedicated research support services for the Faculty of Health Sciences. “The establishment of the office demonstrated how much research support was needed by researchers in the faculty,” said Hlungwani, “especially with the environment becoming increasingly international.”
The office structure initially evolved organically, and then, following a review in 2019, became formalised through the merger of two offices: the administrators who support the ethics and biosafety committees, and those who provide other aspects of research support. The aim was to professionalise research support services as a single entity, with a defined portfolio and staffing structure.
“An award like this is so important.”
Dr Harley has served as the director of the Faculty Research Office since the merger. She has a background in health sciences, and worked for a medical research funder in the United Kingdom prior to moving back to South Africa. There are currently three portfolios in the research office: research intelligence, research diligence, and research development. These three areas cover everything from oversight of internal research support services (funding schemes, reporting and visibility), to management of ethics, biosafety and compliance systems, and expert support for funding proposal submissions and research sustainability. The work is done by a staffing structure composed of 17 posts (of which 13 are currently filled).
The research office has done benchmarking exercises with other institutions, and has shared best practices across institutions. The office also interacts with other institutions through the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), which is focused on research management and innovation and looks at the role of being a research manager as a dedicated profession.
There are always new challenges and opportunities on the horizon for the research office. “One of the things we will be looking at from next year will be working with our deputy dean for research on developing a new research strategy, specifically for health sciences,” said Harley. This will be a consultative process which will set an agenda for the next five to 10 years of research in the faculty.
“The growth in research in the past decade has been partly in volume, but also in scope and scale and complexity.”
The office will also play a strong role in looking at the sustainability of research. “The growth in research in the past decade has been partly in volume, but also in scope and scale and complexity,” said Harley. “This requires advanced systems and support.” Hlungwani added: “We will also be looking to work with the university’s central offices to improve the support for postdoctoral fellows in the faculty – this group of researchers plays a hugely important role in the institution, yet can fall between the cracks as neither staff nor students.”
The office also wants to grow the professional and mutually respectful relationship between the academic staff and the PASS staff in the faculty. Harley said: “We want there to be a really strong partnership built on understanding, for the long-term benefit of research and those who perform and enable it. It is very important for our office that all the work we do with our researchers is professional and respectful.”
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