Aims of the PRISM network

Founded in April 2020, the PRISM network pursues two main aims:
  1. To bring the widely dispersed PRISM community across the UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) together.
  2. To engage with UKRI and HEIs on a cultural shift for research teams in HEIs, which includes better recognition and progression pathways for PRISM roles.
The PRISM initiative is inspired by our Research Software Engineer colleagues, who founded their Society (SocRSE) in March 2019 "on the belief that a world which relies on software must recognise the people who develop it." - 7 years after the seed for their cause to unite the RSEs and lobby for their recognition was planted and successfully pursued.

The PRISM network also follows the spirit of the Hidden REF initiative, a competition that recognises all research outputs and every role that makes research possible.

"Research has changed. We rely on many people and many different skills to conduct research. Recognition of research excellence has not kept pace with changes in research roles." (Hidden REF 2020)

Below, we outline our aims and the status quo for PRISMs in more detail, and map out initial thoughts on the way forward.

Our aims and the status quo

1. To bring the widely dispersed PRISM community across the UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) together.

PRISM roles are usually found as fixed-term contracts on research grants and similar investments. The role holders have a variety of titles, such as project manager, programme manager, network manager. They find themselves 'homed' in a range of departments within an HEI, for example as postdocs in the research family, but more often spread across the various clusters within support service departments, such as research services, college services, doctoral college, etc.

This makes it difficult for PRISMs to find their peers even within one HEI, let alone beyond their local institution. Our network will help to build links and enable experience sharing between those who identify their role as a PRISM role within UK HEIs.

2. To highlight the need for better recognition of PRISM roles to UKRI and UK universities.
  • PRISM roles are often filled only post-award under a generic project/programme manager job description.
The UK HEIs miss out on valuable input by an experienced PRISM at grant writing stage to ensure, for example, that the proposed governance structure and deliverables are fit for purpose considering the personalities, skill sets, and availability of the key people involved in the grant.

In addition, often lengthy HR processes and competing demands on the investigator team can lead to a slow start in award utilisation until a PRISM role is finally recruited and able to pick up speed.
  • The short-term contract nature leads to loss of value in the investment exploitation.
PRISMs are unable to fully commit and exploit their skills and experience whilst having their mind on searching for new roles to secure their future.

They can be lost long before the grant expires as they are looking for a new job to maintain security.  This can lead to either another recruitment process, with the new role holder starting from scratch, potentially without much access to historic knowledge on the investment and its people. Or the PRISM work being moved to the academic team with a risk of reduced effectiveness due to competing demands on the investigators.
  • Lack of recognition and development support  
PRISMs require among other elements a high amount of analytical and strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, resilience, communication skills, as well as own experiences and understanding of the working cultures in the Higher Education sector, and often also industry and governmental agencies with their different pressures and structures.

However, PRISM role salaries often don't reflect the amount of experience and skills required. 
Some PRISMs work in teams where their academic colleagues value the PRISM contributions to the success of the research area. They are supportive of the PRISM’s development and try to recognise their work formally and informally wherever possible.
Where a PRISM is already in post to manage a particular investment, they can be utilised for input on bid development and management of new initiatives and contribution to wider strategies, for example through involvement in the development of centres, institutes, and (inter)national networks.

However, no formal route to progression exists, and the current Higher Education structures do often not allow for any official recognition of the PRISM work, e.g. through Co-Investigator or even Principal Investigator status where appropriate.

A way forward

There is, at present, no defined recognition and progression route for PRISMs, which could look initially like a 3-tier grading sturcture, e.g. junior PRISM, PRISM, senior PRISM, depending on level of responsibility and experience.

At the moment, a route to promotion seems to be reserved for the traditional academic career.
Staff in support service “maintenance” roles usually progress through changing jobs, as the role itself is static. It is core work that does not change and new professional challenges can only be found by the staff member by moving in a new role.
PRISM roles are, however, dynamic. They are not maintenance roles that keep the university core business running, but they are dedicated to drive growth of research areas together with the researchers involved in that area.

PRISM role holders can grow their area of responsibility, expertise, and experiences through contribution and leadership of new initiatives that are outcomes of the investment they are initially employed on.
Permanently employed PRISMs would enable the development of a progression pathway structure, where PRISMs
  • can feed into the development of proposals and their governance needs from the start;
  • become experts and integral part within the research project community they are part of and can therefore utilise its capabilities to maximum capacity from start to finish;
  • have an opportunity to apply for promotion based on criteria connected to the growth of the research cluster they manage and develop, such as grant and industrial sponsor income, people management requirements, research communication, collaboration and network building, and advisory responsibilities at an institutional, regional, and national level.
This initiatives' current focus lies on spreading the word about the community cause among PRISM role holders within UK HEIs to strengthen the network through membership, and on raising awareness of the case for recognition with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the first instance, and UKRI as a whole as appropriate.
Last edited: 20 August 2020