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Research technology professionals: the hidden roles behind research success

A network server specialist programmes a computer server in the Data Center at University College London. credit: Alejandro Walter Salinas Lopez
A network server specialist programmes a computer server in the Data Center at University College London.

Research Technology Professionals play a crucial and active role in achieving high-quality research outputs. Supporting their career progression through universities will help to keep these in-demand professionals in academia, say Louise Chisholm and Jeremy Cohen.

The way that we do research is changing. The adoption of new computational capabilities, instruments and technologies, is enabling us to make more impressive discoveries with greater accuracy at higher speed. Data can be captured more easily, often in vast quantities. New algorithms and simplified software tools make processing this data, or performing simulations that would previously have been considered infeasible, a realistic possibility. This offers a wealth of new research opportunities across all domains, but only if we develop and nurture teams combining technical and domain specific research expertise.

‘New frontier’

Behind all of these developments has been a huge growth in the need for research technology professionals (RTPs), as research relies on an increasingly wide array of complex software, hardware and instruments. Over the past decade we have seen the growth of data science, the Research Software Engineering movement and research data management and stewardship. We have also seen research computing facilities becoming a key requirement of many research processes. Along with the emergence of “hackspaces” and “maker labs”, all of these developments support a new frontier in research capabilities.  RTP roles will continue to grow and evolve as they become increasingly important to, and embedded within, even more disciplines – often influenced by  research funder policies, e.g. those around open science and FAIR data/software, RSE and support for next-generation, exascale computing technologies.  

While routes into RTP roles are broadening, individuals frequently come from a research background in academia or other sectors. They enjoy the challenge of working within the academic space and may also contribute to related research activities such as writing papers or grant applications. Indeed, the ability to work within academia is often one of the main draws of such a role. These roles are, however, often hidden or not formalised. 

Individuals working within research teams and with a role that also involves some research tasks may simply hold a standard post-doctoral research role. Others are part of a hybrid professional service-academic department which provides both technical services to a wider academic community, as well as undertaking their own research, alternatively the role can be embedded in a dedicated professional service team. However, research institutions are developing career frameworks for RTP roles and research funding opportunities are increasingly inclusive of RTPs, such as the BBSRC Bioinformatics and biological resources, EPSRC Open Fellowship schemes, and the Wellcome Trust’s Digital Technology Development Awards.

So what’s the challenge? Well, RTPs play a crucial and active role in contributing to and sometimes driving the development of high-quality research outputs. Some of them may be considering progressing towards a long-term research career, or an academic career. Others will be committed to an RTP-focused career or a mixture of both.

Navigating the gap

Traditional research roles and their associated career progression criteria do not generally consider the type of outputs produced by RTPs. These non-traditional roles are often not directly aligned with existing professional service or technician career routes either. As such, they can fall into a gap between these standard paths making career options more difficult to navigate. 

RTPs can reach a point where they have a significant amount of vitally important knowledge and expertise but find that they are stuck in a position where they can progress no further. With well-paid roles in industry often available and increasingly offering benefits such as fully-remote employment, it’s no surprise that many experienced and talented RTPs may ultimately decide to make a move out of academia.

This presents a big challenge for the future of research. As software, systems and infrastructure get more complex, we need to retain and grow talent, experience and expertise to help support the next generation of world-class researchers and RTPs. RTP communities, such as the Society of Research Software Engineering, the Research Data Alliance and Research Software Alliance, can play a key role in advocating for the necessary changes and enhancements. However it is also the responsibility of individual institutions, funders and the wider research community to continue to support these developments.

One thing looks to be certain – places that get this right, will benefit from the expertise of a community of enthusiastic, highly-talented and motivated RTPs who will contribute to their success in the increasingly data and computationally focused research landscape.

If you’d like to know more about how RTPs are providing vital support to the research community, the approaches currently being taken to support and improve RTP career opportunities, and the sorts of RTP roles that are currently open at a range of institutions, Science and Engineering South (SES) and Research Software London (RSLondon) are co-hosting an event on Thursday 26 May 2022 – Making the Magic Happen: Technical careers helping to supercharge research and innovation