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New HEPI report addresses the ‘research leadership vacuum’ in UK higher education

  • 3 November 2022

In a new report, Research Leadership Matters: Agility, Alignment, Ambition (HEPI Report 154), Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, asks what research leadership is and why it matters.

Professor Flinders identifies, at worst, a research leadership vacuum and, at best, a leadership lag and far-reaching concern about lost leaders. These findings go to the core of broader questions concerning talent management, equality and inclusion, and how the UK can retain its science superpower status.

The main findings of the report, which has been sponsored by Worktribe, a platform for higher education research and curriculum management, include: 

  • Changes in the research, innovation and development ecosystem are increasingly raising the need for connective and catalysing leadership capacities. But very few researchers have ever considered what research leadership is, why it matters or where they can go for support. This has created a research leadership vacuum.
  • Researchers generally develop their skills through a highly inefficient combination of trial-and-error, luck and structured serendipity. Many researchers feel unsupported. Far more research is needed on what works when it comes to nurturing research leadership skills in order to ensure that new initiatives are based on firm foundations. 
  • Research leadership has little to do with heroic leaders and more to do with a recognition of different talents and the creation of different leadership roles. Institutional incentives have a big role to play in recognising and rewarding those individuals who take on often risky and demanding research leadership roles.
  • The research leadership challenge cannot be addressed by any single discipline or institution – it demands the creation of boundary-spanning platforms and genuinely systemic thinking. Examples of positive innovation in this space abound but more needs to be done to connect across investments.
  • The UK faces a genuine research leadership opportunity. A bold new vision could redefine international standards, lever additional resources and attract global talent. This report provides a 12-part plan for seizing this opportunity through a core focus on agility, ambition and alignment. 

Professor Flinders said:

Research leadership matters. That is the central argument of the report. It matters because as the research endeavour becomes more complex, collaborative and co-designed so too will researchers have to combine their subject specific knowledge with the capacity to work as part of larger teams and networks.

Research leadership, as it relates to both self-leadership and team science, is therefore going to be crucial in relation to addressing major societal challenges.  Ensuring that the UK science base is “fit for the future” rather than “fit for the past” presents both a leadership challenge and a leadership opportunity.

James Brook, Chief Operating Officer at Worktribe and author of the Afterword of the report, said:

Professor Flinders’ recommendations on research leadership arrive at a pivotal moment for the sector. While progress has been made since the publication of his initial report, there are clearly still areas which require specific and focussed attention as well as considerable investment.

In the current climate, how and where this investment happens is fundamental to the continued world-class success of the UK research community – Professor Flinders’ latest recommendations are a spearhead for that direction of travel.

The report’s 12-point plan, which is explained in more detail in the report, aims to:

  1. Scale-Up Ambition to foster a more strategic, inclusive and ambitious approach to research leadership.
  2. Create Core Capacity via a new central unit to co-ordinate activities, liaise with partners and distribute resources.
  3. Understand What Works to ensure a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of research leadership than is currently available.
  4. Acknowledge Excellence by establishing a small number of national ‘Celebrating Research Leadership’ prizes.
  5. Facilitate Mobility through a new ‘Discipline Hopping’ funding scheme and new ‘Research Re-Entry Fellowships’ (or ‘Returnships’).
  6. Manage the Middle by a new skills-focused ‘cluster competition’ for researchers at this level.
  7. Push the Top by establishing a new Senior Research Leadership Programme.
  8. Embed EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) through new Laureate Professorial Fellows to recognise excellence and drive change.
  9. Reflect Upon the REF (Research Excellence Framework) to support inter-disciplinarity and the mobility of people, ideas and talent.
  10. Reconfigure Resources to cultivate collaborative skills and the creation of innovative teams. 
  11. Reassess What Counts by ensuring university reward systems recognise collaboration and engagement with non-academic environments.
  12. Recognise Mentorship Matters and that we need to fix inconsistencies in current mentoring arrangements.

Notes for Editors

  • HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity. For further information, see
  • Worktribe is a cloud-based platform seeking to simplify research administration and management in higher education institutions. For further information, see

1 comment

  1. Tom Selwyn says:

    How do I access a worktribe budgetary plan?

    I am applying for research funding and would like to enter the budget for my project in a worktribe budget form.

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