Transforming Our Professional Services


Research Support Transformer: Designing the future of research support 

30 October 2019

We’ve worked with over 170 members of the UCL community to build a picture of the current issues with research support and administration. We’re now starting work to determine how we can address these issues. 

Photo of a microscope

The aim of the Research Support Transformer is to change the way in which research support and administration is delivered to improve the experience of all users throughout UCL.

Working with the UCL community to understand research support

Over the last few months we’ve worked with academic and professional services colleagues from a range of faculties, divisions and Vice Provost Offices who are involved in supporting, managing and delivering research at UCL. 

We have taken a comprehensive, end-to-end view of our research services to understand how people, processes and systems interact in supporting the UCL community and where there are issues and frustrations in the way we currently get things done. We have also built upon earlier consulting work completed in 2017.

We wanted to say thank you to all who have taken the time to contribute to this work. One of our main aims is to work collaboratively with the UCL community to design services around the needs of those who use them. We could not do this without the valuable contribution and commitment from colleagues at UCL.

What we heard

Through our conversations with the UCL community, we wanted to understand three key areas: the researcher experience; the steps in the process for the main research activities at UCL; and how research and research-related activity are supported, structured and managed.

These conversations highlighted a number of key themes:

  • Researcher experience: Researchers feel that they are operating more and more innovatively to develop collaborations and demonstrate impact but that this is not being matched by an internal administrative system capable of meeting these demands. The administrative system is perceived to be outdated and does not adequately meet the needs of today’s research community or of funders. In general, the experience of researchers is characterised by administrative barriers, delays and frustration.
  • Finding support:  At times, it isn’t clear to the research community how support on offer is provided and how they can access it. 
  • Contracting: The processes, systems and ways of working supporting the way we manage and administer research contracts is causing a lot of frustration for the research community and their partners.
  • Service structure: Research support at UCL is offered from many different teams but there are some activities where no support is offered. This makes it hard to respond to, and manage, the diversity of research activities that the community undertakes. 
  • Variation across schools, faculties and departments: There is variability in the needs of researchers and the support they use. Some rely heavily on local support and others receive support from central teams. The variation can make it confusing to know where to receive support from, and for what, and also means some areas receive lots of support and others receive little.
  • Reputational impact: In many cases administrative issues have a material impact on the effective delivery of projects. This can have a detrimental impact on UCL’s reputation as a partner, as issues with projects can compromise the goals and the experience funders and collaborators have when working with UCL.

Our plan to transform research support

There are many improvement initiatives already underway

We are committed to taking a joined-up approach to how we improve research support and administration. As such, with the oversight of the Research Operations Committee (ROC), we are continuing to work closely with a number of teams across UCL who are delivering improvement projects. For example:

Research Business Partners

We will be trialling four new Grade 9 Research Business Partner roles to support the most complex research bids and projects. These roles will be available as secondments and will be advertised imminently.

Communities of Practice

The Communities of Practice team have established the following research communities:

  • Research IT Technicians, sponsored by Professor Ivan Parkin
  • Research Engineering Technicians, sponsored by Professor Nigel Titchener-Hooker
  • Pre-Award Research Support, sponsored by Professor Mark Emberton and Dr. Karen Sergiou (Deputy Sponsor).
  • The Post-Award Community of Practice set-up workshops will start early next month
Due Diligence Framework

We are working with the ROC, and our internal auditors KPMG, to review all of UCL’s due diligence policies with a view to creating a single UCL due diligence governance and framework that is easier to understand and access.

Foundation level training

We are working with colleagues in Organisational Development, Research Services, the ROC Working Group and Marshall’s e-learning consultants to plan, develop and launch UCL’s online research management training module ‘Fundamentals in Research Management’ in January 2020.

Research contracts

We are working with Dr Sally Wilson, the new interim Director of Contracts, to develop new ways of working in contracts to deliver a streamlined and efficient service.

Enhancing research support communications

We have worked with Research Services to help improve communications to the UCL research community, including creating a communications and engagement strategy and launching the first two Research Services e-newsletters.

What are the next steps for the Research Support Transformer? 

The Research Support Transformer will now focus on:

  • Defining future research pathways: We want it to be clear to researchers what support is available at each step in the research lifecycle and who is accountable for it. We can do this by defining clearer ‘research pathways’.
  • Designing the future researcher experience: We will identify how we can improve the researcher experience at UCL and deliver a sector-leading service with easily accessible support, addressing any administrative barriers, delays and frustrations. 
  • Designing the operating model: We will provide a vision for how research support services could be delivered in a way that is more consistent and provides an improved researcher experience and clearer pathways. This is a high-level activity that aims to define how all elements of research support: for example systems, processes, ways of working and culture can work together to improve the way we get things done.
  • Enhancing operational performance: We’ll focus on improving the efficiency of our processes so they are easy to use and less time-consuming. This will ensure processes are in place that can adapt to meet the changing needs of funders and the community.
  • Improving how we support contracting: We want to develop our contracting service so it delivers a service that meets the needs of the UCL research community and provides a comprehensive service covering the full range of contracting activities. 

The work is being sponsored by Fiona Ryland (Chief Operating Officer) and Professor Tony Kenyon (Vice Dean Research, Engineering) and steered by a representative board including senior academics.  

Keeping up to date on progress:

In addition to articles in the TOPS Newsletter you can: