Efforts to improve career development for researchers are bearing fruit

Universities are committed to improving research culture - but the work needs to be sustained, finds Dana Gamble

Dana Gamble is a policy researcher at Universities UK

The UK’s research and innovation system is one of the very best in the world. But for all its strengths, it continues to be plagued by barriers that hold back talent.

Exacerbated by the pandemic, issues with inclusivity, short-term contracts, workload and bureaucracy are still problems for researchers at all stages of their careers. And the definition of a “researcher” encompasses a huge range of people with very different experiences.

A framework for change

The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, a sector-wide agreement between institutions, funders and researchers, aims to continuously improve conditions in UK research.

Signatories include universities, research institutes and other research employers committed to enhance mental health and wellbeing provision, embed equality and inclusion into recruitment and progression processes, and provide meaningful opportunities for professional development to every researcher.

In 2021, Universities UK assumed responsibility for the concordat’s progress and implementation, taking over from Vitae. The concordat’s strategy group, chaired by former Universities UK president Julia Buckingham – needed a reboot, and have since implemented a new governance system and engagement strategy.

Three new working groups focus on improving the concordat’s content in relation to current policy and political movements, the community’s engagement with the concordat, and the success of the strategy group’s efforts.

With fresh government strategies and ongoing reviews too, including the R&D People and Culture Strategy, reviews of research bureaucracy and the research landscape, we are keen to make the most of the current heightened focus on research culture.

Communications have been a vital part of this, and in February 2022 we launched a new sector-led website, to act as a national hub for news, resources and stories for and from the research community. This is complimented by a new practice-sharing platform, the Platform of Practice, which spotlights excellent practice to inspire and transport ideas across the community. These tools present us with new opportunities to hear the view of researchers from all career stages at a national level.

The work continues

Our latest highlights report reveals that the sector’s efforts to improve conditions and culture for researchers are bearing fruit. Much is being done to diversify research staff, equalise promotion opportunities and debunk stigmas related to careers in industry.

Systemic initiatives that provide the infrastructure to deal with emerging issues, such as establishing strong online communities of practice, have been instrumental during the pandemic.

The British Academy’s Early Career Researcher Network for humanities and social sciences is paving the way for cross-institutional learning and community-building. The University of Liverpool’s open-access module raising awareness of the concordat is empowering researchers with the knowledge to actively be part of their institution’s efforts for change.

Evidencing the activities that signatories are using to achieve these long-awaited goals, and the mechanisms used to build them, will be paramount to increasing activity across the sector and maintaining pressure on government to continue support for the people in research.

Demonstrating the impact of the concordat is difficult as it necessitates that change is deeply embedded in institutional processes. However, sharing the experiences of researchers themselves has the potential to be very meaningful.

Making use of the concordat’s influence to connect, link and unite the key players in the research system at this vital time of economic and cultural recovery, will enable us to actualise the sustainable, and meaningful change the sector needs. We need every employer to play a part in combating these issues through visible and tangible action.

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