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Shaping science and the future through principal investigator training

Principal investigators (PIs) are influential actors in universities and public research systems. They not only design research projects and manage their implementation, but they also coordinate actors within research programmes, and bridge the gap between academia, business and industry. Through this work they shape science, and ultimately this can have beneficial effects on business and society. James Cunningham – Professor of Strategic Management in Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School – is uncovering the realities scientists-as-PIs face in leading and managing large-scale funded research projects. His goal is to help them enhance their leadership skills and improve the effectiveness of their scientific discoveries to increase knowledge transfer for the benefit of society.

Professor Cunningham has long been interested in increasing the success of transforming scientific knowledge into societal benefits. During his career, he has published over 80 research outputs, written multiple policy papers, and participated in several collaborative projects on the topic. However, upon becoming a PI himself, Professor Cunningham began to wonder: what are the skills and capabilities PIs need to be successful?

To address these questions, Professor Cunningham and his collaborators began Topik, an international multidisciplinary project exploring how successful PIs undertake their influential and important role. As a result of this project, Professor Cunningham has been impacting research organisations and universities’ practices by helping them better understand the role of PIs and support them in their activities.

He has also been working to improve the professional support scientists receive about the skills they need to be successful PIs. In fact, he has been integral in creating a research impact canvas toolkit, which forms and important part of the Positioning Your Research for Impact – a professional development programme for early career scientists to better prepare them for PI roles. To date, he has delivered dozens of workshops as part of this programme.

He has also supported current and emerging PIs improve their leadership and management potential through self-exploration. With his collaborators – which include leading academics from Grenoble Ecole de Management, University of Otago,  Dublin Institute of Technology, University of Augsburg and NUI Galway, among others – Professor Cunningham has published a PI self-evaluation form to help scientists reflect on what type of PI they want to be. The team has also created an online game through which users explore different aspects of the PI role, depending on what pathway they choose and what stage they are at in their scientific career.

Professor Cunningham is also working directly with policymakers to ensure the long-term impact of his team’s findings. He is currently working with the EU Commission to expand their body of knowledge and thus better understand the effectiveness of PIs.

He is also impacting the corporate world. He has delivered keynote talks and presentations to business, policy and academic audiences as well as executive master classes on strategy development, innovation and technology entrepreneurship. Professor Cunningham also provides strategic consultancy and advice to start-up firms, SMEs, and voluntary and public sector organisations.

Looking forward, Professor Cunningham is eager to extend his research into the arts, humanities and social sciences. Additionally, he is planning a large-scale cross-country study of PIs to address themes such as gender, entrepreneurial orientation, entrepreneurial behaviours, failure and impact.


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