Building capacity among research and innovation managers

The Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association, or SARIMA, has gone a long way to creating a community of practice for research managers and innovation managers in public and private sectors in Southern Africa. At last month’s biennial conference in Namibia, the association elected a new president. Jacqueline Barnett spoke to University World News about how much the organisation has already achieved in resource-constrained contexts.

UWN: Why does SARIMA exist?

JB: The network has made a major impact in the Southern African region over the last 15 years – becoming the ‘go-to’ association for research and innovation managers in both the public and private sectors. This community allows researchers and research managers to network, build their expertise through informal and formal training, and develop research and innovation management as a profession in its own right.

Research management and innovation management has evolved over the years and is now an integral part of any research and innovation process – but there is no formal undergraduate course one can go on to learn how to do research or innovation management. SARIMA plays a role in building a network that can enable capacity building in the profession.

UWN: What will be your priority in your two-year term?

JB: There are two main priority areas for me although the association has a huge number of projects that work in other related areas. For me, the two main areas are professionalisation and the impact of capacity building. In terms of professionalisation, we are already associated with the global Alliance of Technology Transfer Professionals which recognises innovation management professionals, and are busy developing professional recognition for research managers.

I believe that we also need to look at the dual role played by many of our members. Their organisations do not often have the separate structures seen elsewhere in the world, so our members are both research and innovation managers. We need to determine how to recognise that dual role and ensure standards across the profession.

The second main area, impact of capacity building, requires that we look at the development of our members and the impact that training has on their work. It is pointless people attending training that does not make a difference, or where we just look at the number of participants to determine whether a course or conference is successful.

Developing new measures is not easy, but we are looking at various measures such as progress towards professional recognition, or course assessment.

UWN: What new programmes are in the pipeline?

JB: In terms of research management, we have a large project currently looking at mechanisms for professional recognition. In addition, we are looking at various formal programmes such as certificates and diplomas which would provide much-needed qualification-based training.

UWN: Universities are increasingly talking about commercialisation and technology transfer. Do technology transfer activities have a positive net impact on universities in Southern Africa? If so, why are more universities not emphasising these?

JB: I believe technology transfer and commercialisation do have a positive impact because they ensure we fulfil our mandate of making a difference in our society. However, this is only true for universities that have formal structures to manage this. Many universities do not even have proper research management structures, let alone technology transfer and commercialisation staff.

This is mostly due to a lack of resources. When you struggle to have enough academic staff to focus on teaching and research, innovation activities (commercialisation and technology transfer) appears to be a luxury. It must also be borne in mind that the impact of commercialisation is very long term; many of the successfully commercialised inventions in the world are based on research done 20 or more years ago.

The other issue is that this is, generally, not a cash positive exercise. So an institution must put in resources for a very long time to make an impact which may not bring them a ‘cash’ return. This is difficult in a resource-constrained environment.

UWN: What does the hold future hold for SARIMA?

JB: Given the lack of resources in the region, we need to ensure that research is properly managed and makes an impact on society – that is the most critical role for research and innovation managers. However, our public institutions do not have the luxury of creating large research management and innovation management structures, so we need to ensure that we create structures that can work from research through to innovation to make an impact.

SARIMA has been at the forefront of showing the world what can be done in a less developed context and we will continue to do this.