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 in particular with funders (e.g.UKRI) and employers (mainly universities) to drive a cultural shift for research teams in HEIs, which includes better recognition and progression pathways for PRISM roles.
These aims originate from the interlinked challenges the PRISM community experiences across the various home institutions of the network's members, concerning A.) recruitment and job security; B.) career progression and professional development; and C.) recognition and belonging. These challenges are described in more detail below.

The 2022 network report ABOUT PRISMs outlines the role and the network aims alongside quotes from academics and PRISMs. Feel free to use it as an informative document and discussion starter in your organisation.

A.) Recruitment & Job Security

More than 78 % of PRISM network members declared that they are employed on fixed term/open-ended contracts tied to grants, rather than in permanent/underwritten positions. Here, we list some of the implications of such an employment culture on the institution and the individuals affected, as described by PRISM network members and HR:
  • Minimum of 3-5 months recruitment lag time once a grant is awarded, even if a suitable candidate is found in the first round (assuming a 2 months’ recruitment process and 1-3 months’ notice period).
  • Loss of skills and experience when the PRISM leaves during the grant lifetime, e.g. for a role providing longer-term job security and development options. – This may lead to another recruitment cycle or reallocation of the PRISM work to the academic members of the research team. 
  • Wellbeing and productivity of the individuals in the roles – e.g. impact on motivation from multiple short term contracts and necessary job searching internal or external before contract end.
  • Lack of resource to accommodate infrequent managerial / administrative workload – e.g. where the staff time requirement is costed realistically (e.g. 0.2 FTE), but cannot be recruited to, due to the unappealing nature of a low-FTE role with fluctuating workload in line with project needs and different low time contracts with varying end dates.
  • Redundancy costs (applicable after 24 months of employment).
  • HR and Professional Services/academic Line Managers’ time invested in
    • the lengthy end of Fixed Term contract or redundancy processes each time a contract comes to an end;
    • contract renewal / re-recruitment.

B.) Career Progression & Professional Development

PRISMs are essential for the success of the investment they represent and manage, be it a short- term project or a long-term venture, where future sustainability and success is of paramount importance for the HEI.

There is no clear career progression pathway for PRISM roles. Projects / Programmes / Doctoral Training Centres / Research Centres / Networks / Institutes have different levels of remit, responsibilities, and impact and provide a growth route for these roles. However, clear definitions and grading structures to reflect these different levels and provide progression pathways are often lacking within the UK HEIs.

PRISM roles and responsibilities are organic, changing with the needs of the research team and the opportunities arising.    This is particularly true where a PRISM’s duties go beyond the scope of typical project management (project planning, risk management, budget management, staff management, reporting), instead incorporating responsibilities for the realisation of award deliverables and development activities for future funding. 

PRISMs can grow their area of responsibility, expertise, and experiences through contribution to, and leadership of, new initiatives and wider strategies that are outcomes of the investment they are employed on, e.g., through involvement in the development of new bids/business cases, partnerships and (inter)national networks.  However, such work, while beneficial to and appreciated by the immediate research team, seem not to form part of a framework which could recognise and reward the growth of the PRISM’s remit and responsibilities alongside the growing research ecosystem they manage.

At present, the route to promotion appears reserved for the traditional academic career.
For PRISMs, this often means they contribute significantly to the grant/ business case development which includes the role they have shaped as part of the research team. If the grant/case is successful, they are likely to be best qualified to undertake the managerial leadership roles, but under the current system they then may need to apply for the role in a competitive process, and/or undertake a regrading process that lacks transparency of metrics.

It is not clear how PRISM roles map against competencies and experiences required for senior management roles (within and outside of academia) and how PRISMs may be best supported in their development towards them.  

Another issue reported by the community is access to development opportunities, due to: i.) lack of budget (not costed in grants; central budgets not accessible to non-permanent staff); and ii.) time-limited contracts (course duration exceeding contract duration; contract extension planned but not issued prior to the course registration deadline).

C. Recognition & Belonging

There can be a sense of lack of belonging reported by some PRISM community members, in particular those whose focal point of work is with the research team / department / college / faculty they are embedded in, but who are homed, and line managed within a professional services team that has little overlap with the PRISM remit.
Some PRISMs reported feelings of isolation within a solely academic environment, where their role may be recognised as a critical arbiter but simply doesn't fit with the career pathway of the research active roles within the team.
The culture and support offered is therefore often a poor fit to the reality of the individual’s multi-faceted work environment.

PRISM roles require a breadth of skills and experiences, agility, adaptability, the ability to lead and manage. However, the metrics and measures of success are not clear cut or easy to articulate for PRISM roles.
PRISMs bring together the expertise from a range of specialist teams within their organisations, including industry/partner engagement services, research office, doctoral college, technical services, legal, press office, digital and marketing, library, estates, executive groups, etc.   
They manoeuvre across a wide range of stakeholder groups and their respective work cultures and pressures and ensure that projects are being delivered, business-as-usual is executed smoothly, and strategic development can take place. Each team is different, each research environment has their own culture, specialist knowledge and relationship demands. It can take years to build these relationships within the wider academic, industry and governmental partner landscape.
Many of the PRISM community reported that there is little institutional recognition of the value of these enabling roles at the interface between the scientists and the core professional services teams. They do not fit within the standard academic pathway, nor within the range of specialised professional services teams who support aspects of the research life cycle.
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)
Last edited: 15 Dec 2022