Toward a truly "next" generation.

Author:Slocum, J. Michael
Position:Voice of Experience - Column

Facing An Uncertain Future

It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.

Science and the Modern World: 1925 Lowell Lectures

.... Alfred North Whitehead

The profession of research administration, like many others, is rapidly evolving. The characteristics that define the profession--such as what professionals need to do, and what they need to know--are much different now than they were just a few years ago.

For better or worse, the die will be cast for the profession by those who have a strong interest and stake in what it will look like. Those who hold leadership positions in research administration and management are probably best positioned to envision what the profession will look like in the future. Because of this, I have asked several of the "old hands" in research administration to predict the future, and to tell us what they see for the coming years in research administration. To guide this, I initially asked them to think about:

  1. Developments in the economics, structure, and operational practices of research administration organizations;

  2. Changes in the "curriculum" and educational path for new and mid-level research administrators;

  3. The pressures on research administrators and managers seeking to find balance between their professional and personal lives; and,

  4. The implications of technology on the profession.

    Given the inherent difficulty in predicting the future with certainty, I asked my respondents to identify any particularly important current trends that are driving change. Understanding these trends may provide insights into the probable future in various areas of the profession and enable us to manage change as it unfolds. I also asked them to frame their reflections for us in light of the following three factors.

    Economic Situation

    Almost all institutions are seeking more efficient services, predictable costs, and increased responsiveness to the needs of principal investigators, sponsors, and the public. They are often willing to make dramatic changes in a research administration office or activity if they are not satisfied with the services they receive.

    The economic downturn of the past few years has produced considerable economic fallout, including lower revenue, reduced hiring, more downsizing, and greater internal reorganization. As the economy recovers, it is apparent that the profession, and research in general, will not return to business as usual; and that to be successful in the post-recession era, research managers may well need to engage in long-term restructuring to maintain sustainability and meet increasingly complex demands. Research executives and managers also will need to rethink the model and methodology of educating and training members of the profession to deliver services in the evolving research environment.

    Research institutions that do not understand and address these changes will have difficulty surviving in a world of "translational" research, rapid movement from basic science to commercialization, and a constant tension between open science and profit-driven innovation. Research institutions and their management will need to think more strategically, manage more effectively, and strive to be more results-centered than they have been in the past.

    Technological Acceleration

    Technology is a driving force for many of the changes in research and research administration. Technology is a double-edged sword that helps professionals to work faster and more efficiently, yet enables them to work constantly. It permits them to find better solutions to problems, yet increases the expectations of investigators, sponsors, and senior institutional managers; assists them to serve more effectively in supporting the research enterprise, but opens the door to more accelerating demands for more service and shorter response times. Technology has revolutionized research and research administration over the past few decades. All signs indicate that technology will continue to affect the way professionals are educated and how they provide their services to their organizations. Additionally, technology will change the traditional skills associated with the management of the research activity and how administrators interact with their investigators, sponsors and others.

    Balance Between Professional and Personal Lives

    Finally, as the pace and complexity of their jobs expands, sometimes seemingly in an exponential way, many in the profession are finding it increasingly challenging to balance professional responsibilities with personal priorities successfully. The lack of balance between personal and professional life can cause emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of relationships and work, reduced sense of accomplishment, and impaired job performance, and poor health. This challenge is likely only to increase as technology, the economy, and the sheer amount of knowledge required to function as a professional continues to grow.

    The impending retirement of the Baby Boomers, coupled with that of the Veterans/Silent Generation partners who may have delayed their retirement, underscores the importance of considering balance between the professional and the personal. As has happened since time immemorial, the older generations criticize younger generations for a lack of work ethic and commitment to the workforce. The younger generations feel older generations do not respect their ideas, leaving them feeling discouraged and undervalued. Younger generations are focused on getting the job done, and not on the number of hours they work. They highly value balancing their professional and personal lives. They are goal orientated and use technology and multitasking to achieve their goals. This attitude is particularly evident in the so-called "Millennials," who are often...

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