13 November 2013

Preparing tomorrow’s research workforce

By Professor D. P. Dash

The need to educate people as researchers is being felt widely both in industry and government. Bill Scales AO, President of the Business/Higher Education Round Table, Australia, who is also the Chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology, recently said, “In a very practical sense, what we are seeing in our better performing organisations is that employees today are also researchers in some form. . . . Business enterprises in innovative countries seem to be employing high proportions of researchers because of their capacity to solve problems creatively.”

With the tide of global business turning in favour of the emerging markets, industries everywhere have to reinvent their strategies and business models, and develop new and durable sources of competitive advantage. This requires knowledge workers who can help their organisations understand real opportunities and produce those unique products and services that customers would value.

Governments wish to facilitate the sort of human capital development that would support their economies in the changing global context. Each country wants a higher-education sector that is capable of producing the skills and orientations required in the new economic environment. For example, Malaysia has put in place a well-funded scholarship scheme, MyBrain15, to attract more students into doctoral programs. In fact, the Malaysian government has nominated the scheme as a “critical agenda project” to support ambitious targets on PhD completions. Similar policies focused on growing the number of qualified researchers can be found in other countries too.

In the contemporary landscape of research, whether in industry, government or academia, it is not sufficient for a research student to develop the traditional scientific skills of observation, modelling, prediction, verification and so forth. Researchers require a wider range of skills and competencies due to the new ways research is being funded and delivered. Among these are project and team management skills, language skills, business awareness, understanding of the impact of research on environment and society, ability to work in an interdisciplinary environment, and ability to develop a collaborative network.

According to a global study, the following skills/competencies are expected when appointing a young researcher: scientific competencies (scientific knowledge, ability to formulate a research issue, capacity for analysis and grasp of sophisticated IT tools), project and team management skills (ability to work in a team, communication skills, language skills, business culture and management skills, awareness of the relevance of the research and its impact on the environment), and personal aptitudes and interpersonal skills (creativity, open-minded approach, motivation/involvement, adaptability).

The same study also identifies the additional competencies expected while recruiting experienced researchers: ability to learn and adapt, ability to work in an interdisciplinary environment, ability to incorporate existing knowledge, ability to develop a network, ability to assess, ability management skills, ability to manage and steer teams, and ability to self-assess.

Clearly, a curriculum framework is needed to help research students develop the competencies expected of young researcher and also to provide a foundation for developing the additional competencies in their future research careers. Such curriculum frameworks have been introduced in some of the academically more advanced countries. A good example is the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), introduced in the UK by Vitae, an organisation championing researcher competencies.

The RDF sets out the expected competencies of researchers at different stages of their development. It identifies the principal domains of competency development relevant for research students. These include the knowledge, intellectual abilities, techniques, and professional standards to do research, as well as the personal qualities, knowledge, and skills to work with others and ensure wider impact of research. Within each of the domains are subdomains and further details, which describe different dimensions of researcher development.

The four domains of RDF offer a reasonably comprehensive structure for preparing tomorrow’s research workforce. The domains are listed below:

Domain A: Knowledge and intellectual abilities. This relates to the knowledge and intellectual abilities needed to be able to carry out excellent research.

Domain B: Personal effectiveness. This contains the personal qualities, career, and self-management skills required to take ownership of, and engage in, professional development.

Domain C: Research governance and organisation. This relates to the knowledge of the standards, requirements, and professional conduct that are needed for the effective management of research.

Domain D: Engagement, influence, and impact. This relates to the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed to engage with, influence, and impact on the academic, social, cultural, economic, and broader contexts.

As a word of caution, while translating educational strategies from one context to another, especially from a Western context to a non-Western one, care needs to be exercised. In the Asian context, there is a need to create an appropriate social infrastructure linking research students with research thinkers, practitioners, and educators around the world.

Professor D. P. Dash is Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at ddash@swinburne.edu.my