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  • Dr Kathy Barrett & Dr Rachel Cowen

Conference Report from the Royal Society event Research Culture: Changing Expectations

Dr Kathy Barrett is the University Lead on Research Staff Development at King’s College London; and Dr Rachel Cowen is the University Lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, University of Manchester.

Voices are becoming ever louder across the research sector, raising concerns about our highly competitive environment in which career structures and outcomes can be increasingly precarious and unpredictable. We witness the pressures on academics and on research staff that contribute to creating an environment in which ethics, integrity and respect for others and self, can be profoundly affected, often in negative ways.

Is this current research culture one we wish to perpetuate, and if not, what should we be doing to create change?

In late October 2018 The Royal Society held an inspiring ‘Research Culture: Changing Expectations’ Conference, to open up a national conversation on how we can address these thorny issues and work towards a more inclusive, nurturing and productive research environment. It was attended by a wide variety of stakeholders including academics, funders, professional bodies and learned societies, industry researchers, researcher development professionals, journalists and journal editors, politicians and civil servants, school teachers and think tanks.

The Royal Society defines research culture as “...encompass[ing] the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated.” Their concerns for the state of some current cultures stem in part from their participation in a project led by the Nuffield Foundation for Bioethics and summarised in the report ‘The culture of scientific research in the UK’. Following on from this project, the Royal Society have gathered further evidence on the subject and used both sources to start discussions at the conference.

These discussions were thought-provoking and wide-ranging, from the reflective to the ingenious. What we experienced was a synthesis and exposition of many of the issues we have been individually experiencing in our research environments for a long time. What we came away with was renewed hope that there was a growing force for change for the better. In line with our Researcher 14 colleague Bryony Portsmouth’s thoughts in the November Researchers 14 blog post, we were heartened also to see so many Early Career Research staff attending and proactively contributing to these discussions.

There was so much to consider from the conference, and we have only captured the headline messages below. We encourage readers to view the in depth discussions and talks themselves here.

Key conference messages:

  • We need broader and more inclusive ways to recognise excellence. Less than 1% of the total number of researchers in the UK are rewarded with the highest research accolades (the top prizes or Fellowships from their learned societies for example) and many unrecognised players are contributing to the system. Therefore, we need processes and mechanisms that motivate, recognise and reward excellence in all its forms. Suggestions included rewarding researchers who are genuinely seeking to answer ‘meaningful questions’ that benefit society, and bringing people in from outside academia to ‘judge’ research excellence. Properly attributing credit in publications is something we can all do right now.

  • We need to be more transparent and communicate far wider than academia to promote public trust and diversify agendas. Progress is being made in this area but we need to properly value media engagement and engage potential future researchers from a very early age to dispel the narrow stereotypical view of what a researcher ‘looks like’ and what a researchers does. We must drive diversification.

  • We need a broader educational pipeline and our future researchers need a broader skillset. The UK school curriculum forces children to specialise too early and the academic culture also re-enforces a narrow focus by rewarding subject specialists. Can we create a research environment that equally values the acquisition of skills that facilitate collaboration; develops researchers that can lead, manage and build strategic research capability; and celebrates those that go on to successful careers beyond academia? A simple suggestion for immediate action, was for all research leaders or institutions to showcase and celebrate the jobs and career successes of all of their past researchers, across a range of job roles and industries.

  • We need to properly prioritise the career development of researchers. Including safeguarding time for allresearchers to acquire a broader range of professional skills, competencies and experiences. We need to champion the concept of spending 20% of the working week on professional development which if properly embedded can drive increased creativity, innovation and an outward looking organisational approach. Let’s hope the revised Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (expected later in 2019) embraces this too.

Now what? Do we really know how to bring cultural change about?

There was much to get excited about at this conference, but one thing that seemed clear is that the evidence for whether or not the proposed ideas for culture change would work was often lacking. Researchers 14 welcome the building of an evidence base and are keen to contribute to this. While the conference was well attended by a wide range of stakeholders, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences were underrepresented. This was understandable as the Royal Society is an organisation traditionally focussed on the life sciences and physical sciences. However, to create evidenced and effective solutions, we need the expertise of our colleagues in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, both as people who study humans, and as people who work in the research environment themselves.

Who should take responsibility?

A question that comes up time and again is: who is responsible for bringing about this change? Our understanding is that we are all responsible, from the most recently recruited research students all the way to the top, across every group of stakeholders within and outside individual institutions.

There are some stakeholders who have a greater amount of influence though, for example the Research Funders; those keepers of the research purse-strings have a lot of persuasive power. By including specific expectations in the terms and conditions of the grant awarded, they can drive change more rapidly than can we in institutions. Take for example the impact of connecting funding eligibility with the Athena SWAN gender equality agenda. This has had traction as universities risk exclusion from large funding opportunities by not responding to issues of equality. Venki Ramakrishnan (President, Royal Society) was keen to highlight that similar changes in the sharing of research outputs have resulted from the introduction of financial incentives to encourage the depositing of DNA sequences and the structural co-ordinates of proteins in public databases.We received a clear message from Sir Mark Walport and Sir Jon Kingsman (UKRI Chief Executive and Chair respectively) that while recognising they are not the only players, Research Funders would not shirk their responsibilities and are committed to change. We encourage them in this endeavour.

Another highly influential group are the senior and executive management of any research organisation. They set the scene and are role models for the kind of behaviours that are to be encouraged, and for those that won’t be tolerated in the workplace. For example, internal competition pressures within a research group or bullying amongst staff, both of which encourage animosity and impact on staff health. We often hear anecdotal evidence of how ‘Professor X’ remains celebrated in the institution because they bring in huge research grants, despite running down several members of their research team. We at Researchers 14 feel addressing this issue is paramount in the sector, and call to senior management teams to apply strategies that manage such poor behaviour at work.

Early Career Research staff (including postdocs, research assistants, technicians and teaching fellows) make up a large percentage of the research culture and as such can lobby for change by joining in the conversation. These research staff will be the ones modelling the research culture in the near future, so we should encourage them to have a loud voice now.

Researcher developers like us also have our part to play. A most obvious action would be to ensure that the revisions to the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (expected later in 2019) are smoothly integrated into development of a nurturing culture of their organisation. The conversation about improving research culture must be continued and we, who have a close relationship with our junior staff, are perhaps better placed than many to keep the topic alive and keep the pressure on for the changes we want to see.

We look forward to more discussions on this important topic.

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