Between the academy and the administration

A Hamster wheel © Daniel Mueller

They acquire third-party funds, coordinate ‘knowledge transfer’ and hold research threads together. The people who work at the interface between academia and administration are highly conspicuous at our universities. By Irène Dietschi

​Romy Kohlmann is an important person for the ‘Plant Fellows’. That’s the name of an international postdoc support programme in plant sciences financed by the European Union and coordinated by the Zurich-Basel Plant Science Center, a competence centre of ETH Zurich and the universities of Zurich and Basel. As Programme Officer, Kohlmann is the first port of call for researchers, and above and beyond this, she also has a multitude of other tasks to do. She writes reports for the EU, organises the annual meetings of the current forty Fellows and supports them in the knowledge transfer of their research results. “It’s an exciting, varied job”, says Kohlmann, who studied politics in Leipzig and Lausanne. What’s important in her career, she says, is that you understand what research is all about; management skills alone are not enough.

The job of a programme officer is neither wholly academic nor administrative, but instead lies somewhere in between. This growing area at the interface between the two is referred to as a ‘third space’. Its representatives, who are still waiting for an official overall job description, call themselves ‘science managers’ or ‘research managers’. ‘University professionals’ is also a common designation. As a proportion of employees at universities, their numbers have increased greatly in recent years. This is not just because of the general growth of the university sector but because of the increasing complexity of the organisational tasks bound up with it. Of central importance, for example, is the acquisition of third-party funds. Management tasks – such as heading a study programme, a national research focus area or an institute – are often no longer the preserve of professors alone but now also of science managers.

Focus on management

"University professionals have an academic background and are anchored in a discipline themselves, but their focus is on management", says Patricia Gautschi of the Centre for Continuing Education of the University of Bern. Gautschi heads the university’s course in research management. She has also carried out two studies to investigate the situation of science managers at several universities in the German and French-speaking regions of Switzerland. The results give a heterogeneous picture that is expressed in the statistics alone: at a centrally organised university like ETH Zurich, the proportion of science managers stands at 2.8% of all employees, whereas at the University of St. Gallen, which has a decentralised structure, it is considerably higher at 4.1%.

Gautschi’s results show that the success of research projects is often thanks to science managers. However, their overall conditions tend to be difficult. Often, their contracts are for fixed periods, their job descriptions are vague, and there are great variations in how their work is graded and remunerated. The positions occupied by those interviewed ranged from ‘high level consultants’ who hold doctorates to senior assistants who don’t. University professionals find it difficult to deal with the scepticism they encounter among the academics. "Many scientists have a fundamental aversion to anything that is not ‘academic’ in a classical sense, and that is by its nature a management issue", says Gautschi.

The economisation of the academy?

This aversion is in part expressed by an unwillingness to delegate tasks and competencies, because – so the academics claim – ‘we don’t need that’, or ‘we can do that better’. Many scientists fail to recognise the abilities of their third-space colleagues. They often see them as enemy beings that are driving forward the economisation of the academy – and thereby purportedly sucking out the very finances that would otherwise be destined for research purposes. "The situation is paradoxical", says Gautschi, "because for academics it’s actually a relief if they can pass onto us those tasks that really have little to do with their core areas of expertise". She suspects that in many places there is simply a lack of ‘management culture’ and that the traditional university structures make it difficult to allow for anything new to happen.

With time, however, they will have no other choice. Thomas Breu, the Co-Director of the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern and Coordinator at the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South, says that "it’s a fact that universities could not function without these professionals". He is referring to the financial situation of the universities. For example, the University of Bern used to function primarily on its own resources, today its budget depends largely on third-party funding. Breu’s Centre has an annual turnover of ten million francs, but ‘only’ two million of these come from the University. "These figures are thanks to the success of the research managers. Academics would be unable to achieve that on their own", says Breu.

Resistance and humour

Breu has a doctorate in geography and has held several third-space positions during his career. At the age of 43 he took on the coordination of the NCCR North-South – a large-scale programme with almost 400 researchers and offices in eight regions of the world. "A job like this needs a certain degree of resistance, and humour too", he says. He acquired the necessary management expertise on his own over the years. Breu thinks it is important that university professionals maintain a research field of their own. This is not just to improve their status among the scientists they deal with, but also helps them to understand the other side of things. "Unlike in business, at a university you can’t just decree what’s got to be done".

Gautschi has observed that there is a very great need for more knowledge about third-space activities – the course she runs at the University of Bern has seen a full house every year for four years now. "Despite all the scepticism, there is an increasing willingness to engage with management topics", she says. Many institutes have recognised that they can improve their profile by professionalising their structures, and that this can help them stand out from the competition.

Irène Dietschi is a freelance science journalist.
(From "Horizons" No .101, June 2014)