Key challenges for the PRISM community

1. Recruitment & job security

More than 70% of PRISMs 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).
  • Redundancy costs (applicable after 24 months of employment).
  • HR and PS/academic Line Managers’ time invested in the lengthy end of Fixed Term contract or redundancy processes each time a contract comes to an end.
  • HR and PS/academic Line Managers’ time invested in contract renewal / re-recruitment 
  • Visa costs - Some of these roles would qualify for visas with the new Skilled Worker Visa system with associated visa and extension costs
  • 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.
  • Loss of skills and experience when the PRISM leaves during the grant life time, 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.
  • 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.

2. Career progression and 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 PRISMs 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 most 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.  
The network recently initiated a working group to explore the development of a competencies based framework which would enable: i.) easier assessment of skills requirements for grant development and ii.)  a platform for strategic professional development of the individual PRISMs.
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).

3. Recognition & Belonging

There is 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 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 arbitrer but simply doesn't fit with the career pathway of the research active roles within the team.
The culture and support offered is often a poor fit to the reality of the individual’s multi-facetted 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.
They 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 maneuver 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, strategic development can take place.
Yet, 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 bring to the research ecosystem. They do not fit within the standard academic pathway, nor within the range of specialised teams who support aspects of the research life cycle.
Last edited: 28 Oct 2021