Reducing Research Bureaucracy – Understanding the problems

In January 2020, the Prime Minister’s package of science announcements included:

“…launching a major review of research bureaucracy and methods, including unnecessary paperwork, arduous funding applications and research selection processes. This will free up and support the best researchers to focus on ground-breaking, ambitious and meaningful research…”

Sounds great, right? We can certainly all understand the value in enabling our researchers to focus more on research and less on red tape and data entry. However, making this a reality is never straight forwards, and its easy to make things worse rather than better. Particularly without a proper understanding of the problems being faced.

Following the announcement, BEIS and UKRI commissioned an independent review of research bureaucracy. The report covered a number of key areas the authors felt contributed to unnecessary bureaucracy in research, and referenced Jisc, among others, as a key actor in finding solutions around community and digital platforms.

Jisc is already active in a number of areas supporting research and reducing bureaucracy, with products, services and activity across: Communities; Open access and licensing; Data policy and platforms support; Persistent Identifiers (PIDs) & PID roadmap; Infrastructure, technology and software.

However, we wanted to dig deeper into specific experiences of bureaucracy to build an understanding of what it really looks like and how it impacts on people working in and around research, to see where else we might be able to help improve things for the sector.

To do this we set ourselves the co-design challenge of:

How might we help reduce unnecessary bureaucracy in the research grant lifecycle and enable research staff to focus more on doing research

Essentially, we are looking at all the things that happen to support research and research grants, outside of doing the actual research, and trying to identify what is and isn’t working from the perspective of those doing the work. Getting a deeper understanding of their pain points, the different burdens on different people at various stages, and gaining invaluable insight into what the driving forces behind those pains might be.

The aim was to speak to researchers, research managers and funders as the key players in the space to understand their lived experience of working with research grants, including :

  • Processes
  • Interactions
  • Information
  • Decision making & communication
  • “Systems”
  • Duplication & waste
  • Variations & inconsistencies

We reached out to the community to find interview participants from the 3 key roles we identified to get different perspective on the problem, as well as aiming for a range of experience, disciplines and institution types.

We are took the approach of using semi-structured interviews focussed on the grant lifecycle phases and how participants experienced each of those, as well as the impact different funders and institutions. This enabled the conversation to be open and for us to gain insight into the specific experiences of each participant, and also to understand the problems faced at each stage, from pre-award, to grant end, including extensions, follow-ons and everything between.

We conducted 24 interviews throughout November and December, and gained great insight into what is happening at each stage, the difficulties people face and things that work well. The next few weeks we’ll be  analysing the interviews, looking for key insights into the problems people are experiencing and opportunities where we might be able to help.

Thank you to everyone who put themselves forwards to take part in the research. We have gained a huge amount of insight into the space and couldn’t have done so without your volunteering your time.

By Tom Jenkins

Product lead, Jisc

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