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Times are changing for technologists

Science and technology evolve together, each pushing the boundaries to enable new discoveries and cutting-edge research. But despite the critical contributions of technology skills specialists, their roles and careers are often overlooked. Thankfully that’s changing – helped by the Technician Commitment and recent Research Councils UK statement – as Kelly Vere, Technical Skills Development Manager at the University of Nottingham and Higher Education Engagement Manager at the Science Council, explains.

Kelly Vere. Image credit: University of Nottingham

Kelly Vere. Image credit: University of Nottingham

It’s often forgotten that science is a team sport. Everyone has a part to play, including a group of staff particularly key to the majority of research teams: the technologists.

So who are the technologists?

Technologists are a crucial part of scientific research teams. They make critical, intellectual contributions to research by providing core technical excellence and by maintaining and developing new technologies and methodologies.

The term ‘technologist’ covers a diverse group of staff which includes (but is not limited to): data scientists, data engineers, archivists, informaticians, statisticians, software developers, audio-visual technologists, technical professional staff, and individuals staffing core facilities, across all disciplines.

Even today, technologists can still wrestle with a lack of status in comparison with ‘traditional’ academic colleagues. But I’m pleased to say that the landscape is rapidly evolving towards giving technical specialist roles the visibility and recognition they deserve.

A changing landscape for technologists

From supporting skills and careers, and sharing best practice across the sector, to making technical roles more visible, lots of exciting developments are underway which are beginning to show real impact within research organisations.

Addressing the career development needs of technical specialists and technologists is a key part of the mission of Health Data Research UK. This new multi-funder, interdisciplinary institute is being led by the MRC, in partnership with the health research departments of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Wellcome and the British Heart Foundation. It will engage with research organisations to deliver a people and skills capacity-building programme encompassing clinical, non-clinical, academic and technical specialist careers. The MRC is working with other funders to develop a new career model which covers all of these roles.

Technicians make it happen

May 2017 saw the launch of the Technician Commitment. It’s a university and research institution initiative, led by a steering group of sector bodies, with support from the Science Council and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s ‘Technicians Make It Happen’ campaign. The commitment aims to ensure visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians working in higher education and research, across all disciplines.

We invite universities and research institutes to become signatories of the Technician Commitment and to pledge action against the key challenges affecting their technical staff. There’s an online resource that signposts organisations, projects and initiatives designed to help address these challenges. So far we’ve had fantastic engagement from across the sector; to-date there are 61 signatories and we have a third announcement due in April 2018.

Equal opportunities for all

Research Councils UK recently issued a statement about their expectations of research organisations in supporting technology specialists. It seeks to ensure that technologists and technical specialists are “supported as equal members of research teams and have access to appropriate career development and progression”. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the MRC and EPSRC are also developing a programme of work to ensure that those in technical roles are recognised and supported by research councils.

There are a growing number of opportunities for technologists and skills specialists to develop their careers and get professional recognition. Last year we awarded the MRC Science Council Employer Champion status. This marked their dedication to the quality and practice of science through the professional registration and continued professional development of their technicians and scientists.

Midlands Innovation host a national summit for technical staff working in higher education and research and a national award scheme dedicated to technical excellence in academia. Technical colleagues can get recognition for teaching, through fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. And the Teaching Excellence Framework recognises that teaching can be undertaken by those in technical and specialist roles.

Scientific achievements are not solely the realm of individuals. Of course, the achievements of lead investigators should be celebrated but with the recognition that scientific endeavour is a collective effort. Technologists are key players within that collective effort – so let’s celebrate and recognise their careers and contributions.

Career options for technology specialists and case studies are included in the MRC’s interactive career framework.

Follow @kellyvere for updates on the Technician Commitment and Higher Education Technicians’ Summits.

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