The European Research Area (ERA) aims to boost the excellence of research across Europe. But research, especially collaborative research, is a team game and that team needs to include engaged and motivated managers and administrators to release the full potential of the research. This is where the COST Action ‘The voice of research administrators – building a network of administrative excellence (BESTPRAC)’ is making a big impact.
The role of research support is often neglected, but the complexity of modern collaborative research and its funding systems require the services of a range of skilled professionals, including legal, financial and administrative functions, to enable the research to happen. The COST Association together with key stakeholders initiated BESTPRAC as a Targeted Network that worked to build the capacity of research managers and administrators (RMAs) across Europe and promote excellence in research support.
The Action was largely inspired by the enlargement of the EU and the substantial number of new institutions seeking to get involved with EU research programmes. “The European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA) and other organisations saw the need to create a platform for newcomers to benefit from existing experience,” explains Jan Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark who was the first Chair of BESTPRAC. “At the time, many administrations in academic institutions in the New Member States had no understanding of the research support needed to succeed in accessing EU research funding.”
However, the BESTPRAC Network would not just cover institutions in New Members States but look to build a network of equals across Europe with all members sharing their knowledge and experience.
“The network was established on three main philosophical principles,” states Jan. “The principle of equality was core from the start. All participants had to come up with their issues within a mutual platform for knowledge sharing and co-creation from the beginning. The second principle was individual interaction.
All participants must be active, no passive involvement was allowed. And the third aspect was access to expertise from outside the network. The Commission was almost always present at our meetings so participants could interact with the programme experts directly. This was especially important to both network members and the Commission in understanding and overcoming both real and perceived barriers to participation in research programmes.
Overall, the three principles worked well together and resulted in a network for administrators that has yielded significant results and now serves as a platform for exchanging experiences, developing best practices, encouraging knowledge sharing and increasing efficiency in the field of research support.
The principle of equality was core from the start.“Jan Andersen, Chief Executive Advisor, Science Research and Innovation Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
During its lifetime, BESTPRAC reached more than 680 research administrators from 41 countries giving them the opportunity to increase their knowledge, expand their skill set and professionalize their jobs through training schools, short-term scientific missions and working group meetings. The network has not only supported RMAs in newer Member States, Accession Countries and COST Inclusiveness Targeted Countries (ITCs), but also people new to research administration across Europe enabling them to grow in their professional roles.
Over the years, BESTPRAC evolved into a major knowledge hub creating ‘Hands on’ guidebooks across a huge range of topics, FAQs, documents, a wiki describing the role of administrators at different stages of a research project, presentations and training materials.
The Action provided a platform for interaction between RMAs connecting the whole of Europe, east to west and north to south, with the objective of creating a stronger ERA and boosting recognition of RMAs as essential contributors.
BESTPRAC officially ended at the end of 2019, but the network members felt it was essential to continue with its activities. “We think this is essential for a successful further development of the ERA in particular to improve the participation of so-called widening member states in future EU research and innovation calls,” says Andjela Pepic from the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina who took over as Chair of BESTPRAC in 2018.
One approach to sustain the Action has been to collaborate with EARMA. “A small task force consisting of three representatives each from BESTPRAC and EARMA have looked at how we can cooperate without losing the BESTPRAC identity. We are looking to compliment EARMA activities – not compete,” explains Andjela.
Obviously, the COVID crisis in 2020 has hampered some activities, but the collaboration has initiated a one-year pilot programme to organise joint meetings and the first two-day BESTPRAC-EARMA virtual meeting, which attracted some 900 individual registrations, has already been held and was a great success.
“After the pilot in 2021 we hope to re-start our face-to face training programme,” continues Andjela. “But we have a wide range of proposals under discussion including bilateral connections, a peer-to-peer learning platform as well as the larger conferences. We are especially looking to continue BESTPRAC through the widening participation/spreading excellence programme under Horizon Europe.”