Research leadership matters: Agility, alignment, ambition

Think tank: HEPI

Author(s): Professor Matthew Flinders

November 3, 2022

This report from UK think tank HEPI looks at 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.