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Research Leadership Matters: an interview with Professor Matthew Flinders

  • 29 November 2022

In this interview with Professor Matthew Flinders, we ask Matt about his recent report, Research Leadership Matters: Agility, Alignment, Ambition, published by HEPI earlier this month.



HEPI has published a new report, Research Leadership Matters: Agility, Alignment, Ambition, written by Professor Matthew Flinders and sponsored by Worktribe, a platform for higher education research and curriculum management.

I am Laura Brassington, HEPI’s Policy Manager and I am joined today by Matt to talk about his key findings.

Matt is Professor of Politics and the Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom, and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network, or UPEN.

So, Matt, amidst your varied and many commitments, thank you very much for joining us!


In the report, you say that you’ve never really heard of ‘research leadership’ as a phrase or concept, so what is it and why does it matter?

MF: I think that’s a really interesting point. In my 25 years in higher education, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a conversation about research leadership. I’ve heard lots of conversations about leadership in terms of management [and] administration. Of course, we have much more of a focus on teaching-related leadership. But research leadership is not a concept that is very common. And when I started this work back in 2018 and I had a whole number of focus groups across the UK, it was really, really interesting that when I said, ‘research leadership’ … blank faces all around. Plus, I think also a good dose of suspicion about what might come in with a focus on research leadership.

So, as a starting point to answer your question directly, for me, research leadership is all about supporting and facilitating the production of inclusive research in a way that maximises both its scientific value and its societal value. So, what’s interesting about research leadership is [that] it’s different to doing research. This is about creating the conditions, the culture, the context, the positivity in some ways, the ambition. Those are the sorts of things that research leadership is encapsulating.


LB: And you say that this landscape of research leadership is changing very quickly, so how do you see your report as fitting into that and contributing to the discussion?

MF: Well, I think the landscape is changing very quickly. We’ve seen just in the last few years a shift within the landscape: one is we don’t really talk about ‘the research landscape’ any more. I do it and then I have to sort of correct myself. We talk now about ‘the research development innovation ecosystem’. And although, of course, that does sound a little bit jargonesque, I think there is something really important about thinking about the ecosystem because as scientists and researchers, we increasingly need to work at the intersection of different disciplines and at the intersection between research and research users. Put very simply, working at the intersection – I’m tempted to talk horizontally and vertically and get very complicated, but I won’t – simply said, working at the intersection through increasingly collaborative modes of engagement simply demands new forms, understandings, and support when it comes to research leadership.


LB: On that note, you say that the UK faces a genuine research leadership opportunity, and you conclude with a 12-point plan for seizing that opportunity. So, what are some of those really practical implications of the report and who are you targeting with them?

MF: There are some very practical elements in the report. In a sense, I suppose what’s interesting is I’m trying to ignite a discussion and focus attention on the topic and the way I do that is by, as you say, developing these 12 points that are evidence-based. I don’t want anybody to see this as ‘the Matt Flinders recipe for research leadership’! I want to make that clear. These are ideas that I want to put out there as the basis of critique and refinement and experiment.

I talk about ‘research crucibles’, based on the Scottish model and Welsh model now. ‘Crucibles’ being ways of bringing together academics from different disciplines and people from different professions who would never ever get the chance to meet and discuss their perspectives in their normal day-to-day career. I talk about building core capacity. I talk about new sorts of fellowships, ‘returnships’, discipline-hopping fellowships. I talk about the importance of ‘braided careers’. We lose a huge number of our most talented researchers very early. They fly off into other research-related sectors. Sometimes, we want to get them back. They have a whole rich portfolio of skills and talents but it’s very hard for them to come back into academia at the moment. So, there are a huge number of practical ideas.

But I think there’s also a broader argument about systems and how we think about ‘the system’.


LB: Were there some unexpected or surprising findings during the research that went into the report?

MF: Yeah, there definitely were. I suppose the most basic is I was originally commissioned back in 2018 by the Economic and Social Research Council [ESRC] to look at research leadership particularly as it related to the social sciences. What became very quickly very clear was that this was not just an issue for the social sciences at all. In fact, one of the great things about the whole project, including the fact that I am talking to you today, is the way that the ESRC initiated great interest in this topic and that that has spilled over and generated attention across the whole scientific spectrum. What’s also really interesting – and I didn’t know anything about this until I started – is just how big a topic this is at the international level. Funders and governments, NGOs [and] philanthropists, all around the world are increasingly focusing attention on what research leadership is and why it matters. The great problem is – although they understand why it’s an issue –there isn’t a solid evidence-base out there on what works when it comes to good leadership.

And, of course, one of the interesting things is, going backwards, quite rightly, academics, scientists are trained to be critical. And, often, the idea of leadership immediately opens concerns about top-down bureaucracy, control mechanisms, and that was a real cultural issue that I wasn’t expecting. But that, I think, has over time emerged into something far more positive. I think there is more understanding now that research leadership is not about the single, often white, middle-aged male/ man who is held up as the great scientist. It is not and it shouldn’t be about that.

The research opportunity is the ability to be able to think more broadly in terms of multiple leadership roles, collective leadership, and recognising that different people have different talents within a team. So, what was really interesting there is that there is a huge opportunity to fan out a focus on research leadership into debates around equality, diversity, and inclusion [EDI] and around research culture in really positive ways.


LB: That leads me to my final question, and I hope to end on a positive note: what do you hope this report will achieve?

MF: Well, first and foremost, I hope it will cultivate a debate. As we started off saying, ‘research leadership’ is not a common phrase discussed in lecture theatres or seminar rooms or in any meetings at all. So, I hope it will just focus attention on research leadership as a topic.

I hope, going back to what I was just saying, is that it will inspire reform: reform within institutions, to think about new ways of building capacity, and particularly to think more innovatively. There is a really interesting question about how do we put research leadership on the innovation landscape. And I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I think there’s a huge opportunity. I definitely would love to see research leadership discussed directly as a core part of EDI (equality, diversion, and inclusion). And, the big thing is that there has been in recent years – just the last 24 months – a much bigger focus on research leadership as the issue of talent has emerged. But what I think, personally, would be a really important development which I hope my report might play a little role in, is that we need to move research leadership as a topic that is out there on the periphery but gaining interest more to the centre of discussions. Because, quite frankly, the Government might have committed to increase investment in research and development over the next few years, but that puts huge pressures on higher education, as one part of the ecosystem, of making sure that they have the leadership skills in place to deliver on that investment of public finance on the research infrastructure.

LB: Professor Matthew Flinders, thank you so much for joining us. Matt’s report is now out on the HEPI website.

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