Roles, resilience and recognition: PRISMs are at the core of research

Research has changed. HEIs and the research ecosystem relies on a much broader range of skills to conduct and deliver research. Hidden REF and the Professional Research Investment and Strategy Managers (PRISM) network shows us that research culture is changing, but do we know enough about our PRISMs research community and why is it important that HEIs engage with this group to ensure institutions have resilience to deliver research programmes in years to come?

The challenges and risks this presents was discussed at a roundtable with UKRI and Midlands Innovation universities in July. Chaired by Professor Sarah Sharples, with input from Emma Lindsell, UKRI Executive Director: Strategy, Performance and Engagement and Linda Holliday UKRI Deputy Director, global mobility and inclusion – the role and impact of PRISMs on research culture was discussed in relation to UKRI’s new strategy.

This article is authored by Debra Fearnshaw, Project Manager for University of Nottingham and Dr Helen Turner, Director of Midlands Innovation. 

Roles, resilience and recognition: PRISMs are at the core of research

A connected, creative and agile research and innovation ecosystem is the aim of UKRI’s new five-year strategy. But what does this mean in practice, how can the sector instill new practices and ways of working to ensure future investment supports new ideas, enterprise and innovation?

Recognising the breadth of people, expertise, roles and opportunities that contribute to R&D is key. The research ecosystem relies on a much broader range of talent to conduct and deliver research, than is often credited in the traditional narrative about the lone academic PI. 

Initiatives such as Hidden REF and the Technician Commitment have made strides in recognising the breadth of roles that contribute to research, but there are still communities of professionals supporting research who are unrecognised and unsupported.

The growing Professional Research Investment and Strategy Managers (PRISMs) network is a bottom-up response to this agenda. The PRISM community supports and enables efficient research and a positive research culture by managing and leading large-scale research projects and programmes.

A roundtable with UKRI and members of the Midlands Innovation PRISM community in July discussed the contributions made by these professionals to support research and the challenges that they face.

The conversation highlighted that the broad range of skills, expertise, and knowledge these people have is integral to supporting the people involved in research projects and the research culture they work within.

Professor Sarah Sharples talks at the Professional Research Investment & Strategy Managers (PRISMs) roundtable discussion at the Transforming tomorrow together UKRI Strategy event in iCenture, Birmingham, 14 July 2022.

Professor Sarah Sharples Chaired the roundtable session

Understanding the roles of PRISMs

PRISM roles are varied and diverse, predominantly focused on enabling the delivery and development of large research investments, projects or initiatives.

These individuals are experts in research, they are project managers, relationship builders, mentors and leaders. PRISMs are problem solvers, they ensure projects are managed effectively and maximise the value of the funders investments through careful financial management.

They operate across universities providing the interface between the project and HR, finance, procurement and research offices. Working closely with academic project leads, PRISMs operate with a high degree of independence. But it isn’t just practical project management that these roles contribute. 

The PRISM representatives highlighted the wider role they play in terms of stakeholder engagement and acting as translators helping their academic colleagues and stakeholders build relationships and communicate effectively.

Roundtable participants described the breadth of stakeholders they work with including industry, local government, community, NHS and academic partners from outside their institutions. They also connect academics within their institutions. PRISMs bring stakeholders to the table and viewed their role as removing barriers or helping these collaborative conversations to happen easily.

Influencing research culture

Research culture is a topic of increased focus, evidenced by the Research and Development (R&D) People and Culture Strategy which is addressing challenges highlighted across a plethora of reports and initiatives. 

PRISMs, with their links across large research investments, have a huge amount to offer in terms of developing a good culture within the projects they manage and the teams they work in.  It is often the PRISM staff that lead recruitment and induction of researchers and PhD students, embedding equality, diversity and inclusion practices and providing informal mentoring to their ECR and academic colleagues.

Roundtable participants gave examples of informal mentoring to academics and early career researchers, highlighting different career paths and supporting career development and promotion opportunities, despite having limited career development and training opportunities themselves.

Midlands Innovation partners joined the roundtable discussion with UKRI

Emerging networks leverage positive change

Several individuals expressed loneliness at times within their roles and explained they are often self-taught. Other challenges highlighted include the frequent use of fixed-term contracts, which aren’t always properly budgeted for and the risk of relying on one PRISM who holds such a breadth of knowledge, leading to a single point of failure.

These roles create much-needed resilience in the research ecosystem which isn’t fully appreciated. Despite these challenges, there is an appetite to encourage more cross-fertilisation of PRISM best practice. Emerging networks were highlighted that have opportunities to share best practice which support PRISMs to fully use the levers they have for creating positive change

Influence and impact as research enablers

A study is being carried out by Midlands Innovation and the PRISM network to gain further insight into this largely invisible workforce and better understand the experiences of PRISMs, the challenges they face and the nature of their career paths. 

Enabling people and ideas to move across sectors and disciplines will encourage greater innovation and ideas and the PRISM community can be a catalyst for this shift and a useful group to test and shape new ideas with. As institutions and funders seek to improve research culture it is vital that PRISMs are part of the conversation.

Read more about the UKRI visit here

Download the MI commissioned report: Research enablers: their value, contribution and role

Notes to editors: 

July 2022 data[1] tells us:

  • 93% of PRISMs identify as women: 75% of PRISMs have a postgraduate degree, incl 50% at PhD level, 54% STEMM background and 37% HASS background
  • 64% of PRISMs have more than 11 years of work experience.
  • More than 78% of highly educated and experienced PRISM community members are employed on fixed term contracts (or ‘open-ended’, but with fixed-term funding associated with their roles)

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