Reflecting on PESS research performance and a look to the future – Dr. Brian Carson

As we embark on a new calendar year, it is a good time to reflect on what we have achieved, celebrate our successes and look to the future of research in the PESS department. In this blog, as Chair of the PESS research committee, I will look back on our recent research performance and offer some insights into where PESS might go next.

Reflecting on the year gone by

As we remain in the era of the ‘unprecedented’ due to COVID-19 and we navigate the complexities of the situation, it is almost incredible to report that PESS researchers have managed to match the success of recent years in terms of research output. Our data show that as a department we have performed on a par with the last several years in terms of our rate of publications (see Figure 1). This continues the high level of research activity and maintains the high standards which have been evident over the last number of years, and reflects the expansion of our research teams and the endeavours of our talented research staff and students. To achieve this during a global pandemic, without access to facilities and resources, while all academic staff moved to develop remote learning resources, and many facing additional caring responsibilities, is really quite remarkable. This demonstrates the commitment of our researchers to their trade as well as their adaptability to the situation.

Figure 1. PESS publications in ISI listed journals by year. *2020 data is a projection based on data to end of Quarter 3 (n=74, predicted year end n=99).

In addition to the volume of research outputs it is also important that we consider their quality. Though there are some crude metrics we can work with, this is not easily quantified. At a glance (see Figure 2), we have maintained the number and percentage of publications in the top quartile of journals (as ranked by the Journal Citations Report). This is a positive indicator that our research is of high quality and published in the most prestigious or highest cited journals in our discipline. Our department was the highest ranked discipline (Sports-Related Subjects) in UL in the 2020 QS World University Rankings where we had an overall global ranking of 51 which is another indicator of our research quality. Similarly we were ranked in the Top 100 by the Shanghai rankings. More difficult to assess, is the impact our publications are having. However, we have published articles which we can demonstrate are influencing policy and practise in the areas of physical activity, sport, health and education, research which will ultimately have a societal benefit. We can also show that our research is having economic impact through the numerous industry partnerships which are ongoing, resulting in new product development, product evaluations which confer commercial advantage and the launch of new products to market. These are good indicators of the strategic importance and strength of our research programme.

Figure 2. PESS publications ranked in top quartile by discipline (Journal Citation Reports, 2020) as a percentage of total outputs

Not only did PESS researchers manage exceptional output in 2020, but the future looks bright too. PESS researchers secured significant funding awards in 2020 which will sustain and augment research activity for the coming years. In fact, 2020 was our strongest showing in the last 5 years with PESS reseacrhers securing over €2.8m in funds. Some highlights include a H2020 award, a European COST action, as well as numerous industry partner awards across e-sports and food and health. This selection highlights the broad base of funding through national and international mechanisms across the spectrum of our four research themes (Sport and Human Performance, Sport Pedagogy, Physical Activity and Health, Food and Health). This demonstrates the health of the programme of research in the department and provides an optimistic outlook for the future.

A brief look to the future

So, what next for research in PESS? Though each individual researcher and research team will have their own objectives and strategy, it is important for the research committee to outline a departmental strategy, that aligns with those aims and those of the broader faculty (Education and Health Sciences), research institutes and ultimately the University. As the faculty is developing its strategy at present, now is a good time to assess where we want to go next, to shape and align our approach for the next 5 years. Having established our prominence in the respective literature, as research chair I believe we may have reached a ceiling in terms of the number of outputs given current capacity, therefore, we should now focus on enhancing our research quality and impact. As I mentioned earlier, these are difficult to quantify, so we must consider our strategy and how this will be evaluated carefully. One initiative I envision is the generation of impact case studies for each research team, or in the case of fledgling research groups, impact plans. This will better enable us to plan our research and capture the totality of its impact, ensuring our research is of the highest quality. In 2021, the research committee will devise a plan to support this as well as other initiatives to empower our colleagues to drive their research agenda in the coming years.

There are significant challenges ahead. Though we have maintained our improving trajectory in terms of outputs in 2020, it may be 2022 or 2023 before the full impact of COVID-19 is established. It is important to remember that data collection, as well as much analysis, was almost completely shuttered for 4 months, and has been severely restricted since. This may well be reflected in future metrics. Our research teams have shown their flexibility in dealing with this by rapidly pivoting to alternative research programmes and methodologies. It is likely we will need to call on this adaptability over the next few years. It is also important to remember the impact on our early career researchers such as PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and junior faculty, many of whom have been disproportionately been impacted by restrictions. Similarly, those with caring responsibilities. The research committee will need to carefully consider how it can support them to overcome these challenges. However, our people have always impressed me, proving time and again their resilience and ability to perform no matter the circumstances. I am confident this will be the case once again.

To close, I wish all my colleagues well with their research endeavours for the coming year and I look forward to supporting your outstanding research in PESS to the best of my ability.

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