It’s time for coordinated action to change research culture

A new Russell Group report points the way to a better research culture in UK higher education. Grace Gottlieb introduces it.

Grace Gottlieb is Head of Research Policy at University College London. She was seconded to the Russell Group in 2020 to lead a project on research culture.

We have reached an unusual point in the history of academic research.

The sector has always prized research excellence and the UK’s world-leading position in science and research, and has celebrated the transformative impacts of our research – hailing the research “stars” responsible for these impressive feats.

However, in the last few years momentum has gathered across the sector to focus also on the culture of academic research. If there ever was a time when we saw a supportive culture and environment as being at odds with research excellence, it has long passed. It is now generally recognised that a good research culture and high quality research outputs are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

The UKRI Chief Executive Ottoline Leyser and Science Minister Amanda Solloway have both made promoting a positive culture in research a key priority, as have other funders and many universities. This presents the sector with a prime opportunity to harness this widespread appetite and translate it into real change that can be felt and appreciated by researchers on the ground.

The use of experts

I joined the Russell Group as a secondee in March 2020 to lead a project on research culture. I was particularly keen to draw on depth and breadth of expertise on the topic in the sector. I interviewed over 80 people, including postdocs, senior academics, researcher developers, and representatives from funders and publishers. Their willingness to engage on research culture and environment at a time of crisis (the early months of the pandemic) was remarkable. It was clear that this topic struck a chord with many both professionally and personally.

The expertise, and the examples of good practice, shared by these interviewees form the basis for the outputs of this project: a report exploring the drivers and incentives that shape UK academic research culture; case studies of good practice; and a toolkit that offers pragmatic steps to promote a healthy culture.

What emerged was a clear need for coordinated action – from universities, funders, publishers and others across the research ecosystem – to support career development and facilitate a positive and inclusive working environment. Incentives are shaped by the research system as a whole, and taking a coordinated, rather than piecemeal, approach to change has the potential to be much more impactful. The toolkit offers a wide range of suggestions for how different stakeholders can advance this agenda.

A question of values

A recurring theme in the interviews was the importance of broadening what we value in research. There’s a growing appetite to recognise the rich variety of contributions that individuals make to the research endeavour – hiring, promotion, and grant criteria are a good place to start. The Principal Investigator who puts supporting colleagues before publishing papers deserves recognition. The PhD student who has ideas for how to make the institution work better should be listened to. The postdoc who gains experience in another sector should be celebrated.

This inclusive approach to research should also extend to fostering respectful environments that welcome and value individuals from a range of backgrounds. The toolkit includes a number of suggestions to support this – from making part-time and flexible working options available to ensuring representation of a mix of individuals on funding panels and editorial boards.

A crucial way to support researchers is to improve career stability. Enabling researchers to focus on their research, unencumbered by worries about the looming end to their contract, would have clear benefits for both individuals and research. Universities can play a key role here by reducing the use of short-term contracts, as far as is practical, and providing bridging funding. Alongside this, changes to the way research is funded are essential to enable a shift towards longer contracts, for example by lengthening grants and increasing QR funding relative to project funding.

Of course, different organisations face different challenges, so the toolkit is not an exhaustive checklist, but is meant to offer flexible ideas and options for universities, funders, and publishers to test, use, and adapt to their own contexts. Rigorous testing and evaluation, using pilot programmes, and making appropriate, iterative changes will help maximise impact and deliver progress over time.

Start here

If you work in a university, funder or publisher and have some influence on research culture, it can be hard to know where to start. You might ask yourself: How can I know the best approach to take? What’s everyone else doing?

This is where the toolkit comes in, providing a resource built on the experience and expertise of the sector. Recognising the vast range of local contexts you might find yourself in, the toolkit offers a multitude of possibilities for steps you can take to foster a positive culture and environment, whether you’re based in a university, funder or publisher.

Coordinated change to support a healthier culture will be no mean feat. The culture of academic research has evolved over decades, even centuries, in response to the system in which research takes place. But, in the words of Science Minister Amanda Solloway in a 2020 speech on research culture,

part of being a global leader in research is having the courage to lead into new places, to take on challenges that to others might seem insurmountable.

We hope you’ll join us in taking on this challenge.

3 responses to “It’s time for coordinated action to change research culture

  1. Thanks Grace. I shall study the toolkit. We need some game changing narratives about how research is played out in the sector, and beyond. The response to Covid demonstrated a different culture in some respects, and we can build on that. Hi

  2. Thanks for undertaking this work. Looking at the report, the interviews semeed to have focussed on research-active staff (“individuals from universities, including PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, senior academics, university leaders”), but have not yet involved research-enabling staff who sit at the interface between research and professional services (e.g. PRISMs (www.pris-managers.ac.uk; technicians).
    This focus is reflected in the outcomes. However, many of the people who work in PRISM or technician roles face very similar challenges (career progression, job security, recognition and reward).
    How are they reflected, recognised, and supported as part of the research culture, the research team? Will there be a follow-on piece of work to look at the wider research team culture and whether institutional structures serves them?

    1. This is a really important point. Practical research isn’t achieved without the support of research-enabling staff like technicians. In fact, the vast majority of the Russell Group has signed up to the Technician Commitment (www.technicians.org.uk/technician-commitment) which is aimed at addressing very similar issues. Hopefully there will be follow-on work which addresses these points.

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