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  • Bryony Portsmouth

The art of conversation

Bryony Portsmouth is the Researcher Development Lead at the University of Sheffield and is a member of Researchers14.

My tenure in researcher development is 6 years. On day one of my induction in November 2012, I was handed a hard copy of the ‘Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers’ (now affectionately known simply as ‘the Concordat’) and was told that the document would underpin everything I did.

As was alluded to in our previous blog post, authored by Dr Karen Clegg, there is currently an open sector consultation on a revised Concordat and comments are sought from, “organisations and individuals, including all staff engaged in research, as well as those managing or supporting research and researchers.”

I write this piece in a time of great review and reflection in the sector. In 2018 we have seen the launch of UKRI, the Office for Students and Advance HE. The ambitions for research in the UK are ever increasing: investment in research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027; and in parallel with this the regulatory framework for student experience and the quality of teaching has been revised and standardised through the TEF. It has never been a more ‘interesting’ time to be an academic.

In thinking about these changing times, I wonder are we meaningfully engaging the next generation of researchers in these significant changes?

The current Concordat review proposes a step-change in the way in which research staff at an early stage, e.g. those on grant funded contracts, are enabled to engage in personal and professional development beyond their funded project to support employability and independence for any future career. In fact, the proposal states, “20% of a researcher’s time should be allowed for developing independent research and skills.” This is a bold statement, a proposal I have never seen the like of, in my six years.

We are in massive flux and now is definitely the time for all interested parties to shape the future of research careers but are researchers themselves really engaged enough to contribute to policy change?

The Five Steps Forward report published by Vitae in 2017, was positioned as a review of progress in implementing the Concordat achieved by utilising the UK aggregate results of the 2017 Careers in Research Online survey (CROS) and Principal Investigators and Research Leaders survey (PIRLS). An interesting read in general but for the purposes of this post, I draw your attention to the data in appendix 2 on p60:

Of the 7598 researchers who responded (24% of the potential 31650) they reported their level of knowledge of the Concordat as follows:

  • I have some understanding of this (15.7%)

  • I know this exists but don’t know the detail (25.6%)

  • I have never heard of this (58.8%)

Bearing in mind that at this point, I have been using the Concordat to underpin my work for five years, promoting it, using it to shape policy and practice, reporting on it as part of the University’s HR Excellence in Research Award submission – these numbers are scary! Don’t forget too that I am late to the party compared to others in my institution and beyond, many developers have been utilising the Concordat since its release in 2008.

Why don’t researchers know about the Concordat?

I believe many if not all of my colleagues would agree that whilst researchers may not know about the Concordat, they are no doubt benefiting from its existence and certainly it is a useful guiding light for institutions in terms of what good practice can look like. Perhaps researchers generally are just not aware of its name, the finer detail, or the direct link to the improvements they have seen in the research environment.

That said though, if only 24% of the population are responding to national calls to share their views on what is working or not, are we really capturing the researcher voice? I think we all have to consider whether we are using the right methods for engagement. Survey fatigue is a recognised problem and can affect data quality, but still we use this as a go to method for collecting large amounts of data from a raft of respondents.

Stimulating the researcher voice

Writing this post has caused me to consider both the defintition and art of ‘conversation’ defined online as, “(1.) a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged”.

It also made me reflect on an interesting serendipitous experience I had in this space earlier in the year. During National Postdoc Awareness Week in September, I sent an email to all staff on research contracts (c1300 emails) in our institution, positioning how me and my team value research staff and the contribution they make to the development environment for themselves and others. I stated that I believe researchers, collectively and individually, are awesome. I did not solicit replies but to date I have had 4:

“How about fighting for more job security and better working conditions for postdoc instead of empty words and pointless twitter promotions? It is virtually impossible to get any long term positions as postdoc and combining family life with an academic position is extremely difficult if one has no idea if they can stay at the same university for more than two years. These problems should be the focus and not an empty „thank you“. More funding should be made available for stable postdoctoral and academic staff to guarantee that knowledge I’d not lost at the university. Nothing personal but I feel like there are so many problems with postdoctoral positions in the uk, that need to be addressed.”

“Thank you :)”

“I do not understand the spirit of this email, honestly.”

“The system doesn't work, or shouldn't work this way*. I won't change it and many other people are in my same situation. Next time you share emails like the one you sent, please think about what I wrote here, and how many others like me may feel hurt or even more sad reading it because this is not the reality. We are not awesome, we are just tools that people with a permanent job use until they need it.” *(there was personal reflection regarding attempts to transition to lecturer that has been omitted for confidentiality)

I wrote, they replied and ideas were exchanged – is that not a type of conversation even if it was lacking the ‘talk’?

Two voices in there speak to a lived experience that we all know now pervades in pockets of the research environment across the country (and it’s no different internationally). If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t have need of a revised Concordat. At an individual level, and equally often an institutional level, Researcher Developers cannot immediately resolve these exceedingly complex problems but we have a responsibility to receive people’s truths, even when potentially uncomfortable and to look at ways to continually improve processes and practices.

Those two pieces of feedback to my email are symptomatic of a depth of feeling and opinion. They may not be shared by all researchers but they are surely prevalent enough that we need to really acknowledge and hear this even if it is a really complex problem to solve. One way we can make sure these voices are heard is in our own responses, and our institutional responses to the national Concordat consultation.

We should all engage in the consultation conversation, especially researchers but given we know that surveys are a challenge (and the Concordat consultation survey is a doozy), perhaps a more creative way of having conversations is required for the future.

In this spirit, I point you to the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA), supported by Vitae. The UKRSA is leading on making sure the researcher voice is heard by adopting a face to face model of Concordat consultation through an event in Oxford on the 7th December (there is a selection process to attend to ensure a balance of perspectives). The UKRSA, "aims to provide a collective voice for research staff across the UK, through building researcher communities and influencing policy." Due to the short-term nature of contracts and the pressures to deliver on grants, write papers, develop independence etc. local RSAs never mind national ones struggle to retain active members, but where they are in existence, they are an excellent forum for researchers to contribute to peer support and organisational change.

Whatever we as a sector decide regarding the Concordat, I think we can all make a concerted effort to create conversational time with our researchers, and their wider allies, to really discuss meaningful implementation.

We are all stakeholders in cultural change and in that we should all remember that, “the art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” ― William Hazlitt, Selected Essays, 1778-1830

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