Harassment hotspots should lose research funding, says Solloway

UK science minister hits out at ‘spurious’ research metrics and ‘publish or perish’ lab culture

September 14, 2020
Laboratory microscope

Universities with a poor record in tackling bullying and harassment should be barred from receiving public research funding, the UK’s science minister has said.

In a recorded message to Vitae Connections Week, an online conference held by the UK researcher development body, Amanda Solloway said it was “high time to stamp out the problem of bullying and harassment in research”.

Ms Solloway, who was appointed science minister in February, said it had been “an enormous shock…to learn that nearly two-thirds of researchers have witnessed bullying or harassment at work, and almost half have experienced it themselves”, in an apparent reference to Wellcome Trust research published in January.

“These figures speak for themselves,” added Ms Solloway, who said that, “as a community, we must do everything we can to eradicate bullying and harassment, getting rid of bad behaviour and its root causes…to promote well-being at all levels.”

“Institutions with widespread bullying and harassment problems should not benefit from the taxpayer’s support,” said Ms Solloway, adding that “as a government, it is our duty not to condone the behaviour of bullies, no matter how talented they may be as individuals”.

In a wide-ranging speech, the minister also reflected on “other widespread issues in the culture of research, which are interfering with well-being”, including the international “publish or perish” culture, precarious contracts, the “tick-box” approach to improving diversity and academia’s tendency to “obsess over spurious metrics or narrow indicators of prestige” related to research.

On the pressure to “publish or perish”, Ms Solloway argued that “publication seems to have become an end in itself”.

“It’s as though some researchers – and leaders – have forgotten what really matters,” she said, adding that she had written to research ministers across the world to “invite them to join me in looking closely at this dependence on publications and to find out what we can collectively do about it”.

The minister added that she also found it “baffling” why “scientists and researchers seem to evaluate each other in such strange ways – by obsessing over spurious metrics or narrow indicators of prestige”.

“I have been listening very carefully to what you have been saying to me about the pressure you feel from things like grant income targets or the impending research excellence framework return,” said Ms Solloway.

The minister also hit out at the “narrow set of opportunities that leads to unhealthy levels of competition and game-playing”, which, she said, “kills diversity…and damages our R&D system overall”.

While pledging to “put diversity at the heart of everything we do”, Ms Solloway added that “promoting diversity should never simply be reduced to a tick-box exercise – just one more thing you have to demonstrate to win funding”.

Ms Solloway also expressed a desire to “create real longevity in careers”, adding that “having a casualised research workforce where the vast majority of people can’t develop a proper career is no way to build our status as a science superpower”.

“People need to feel stable, appreciated and secure, in order to have the confidence and freedom to do their most imaginative and creative work,” she said.

The event also heard from Dame Ottoline Leyser, the new chief executive of UK Research & Innovation, which oversees about £7 billion a year in research funding, who argued that the current systems of research incentives often “drive behaviour” linked to bullying and harassment.

“We really have an opportunity to shift these incentives and value a wider set on inputs into the system,” said Dame Ottoline, a former director of the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory.

When senior scientists were “exposed and under pressure themselves” because they had to hit certain targets, they will “pass on” this behaviour to more junior colleagues, said Dame Ottoline. This pressure was “the reason that we have such a serious problem” with harassment in research, she concluded.


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Reader's comments (3)

Bullying and harassment is everywhere. The government should clean up their own house first before they start imposing extreme measures on academia. I don’t know what Ms Solloway’s credentials are, but she shows her naïveté about academic research. Academics are under extreme pressure to gain external funding for research support, training postgraduate students and publishing their research, while expected to carry a heavy teaching load. Successful researchers are working overtime (nights and weekends) to achieve expected results. Universities need to lighten teaching loads for successful researchers. This will reduce stress levels, which will reduce incidents of harassment. To penalise by withholding research funds is not the way forward.
Actually the government needs to look further into bullying and harassment at universities. This must start with the toxic woke agenda often blatantly manifest throughout universities where people who can barely speak English are 'teaching' English Law and even English. Last time I checked University fees were well over £500 per course, students didn't pay to hear barely understandable mutterings and mispronounced words in a lecture. Not only that we are then treated to the most narrow view of life possible, by far too many staff of all hues, who have an inordinate amount of opportunity to make or break a career. That sort of bullying of students, when they are forced to write garbage to pass, particularly grinds on those with long string of qualifications and professional experience. They see the manipulation and bigotry immediately. This type of systemic bullying of any student let alone ones with professional experience cannot go on.
There are many aspects to bullying, and even more to harassment, as ever (in)Human Resources fail to deal with such things effectively, often threatening those Trades Union reps who are charged with protecting their members from abusive management in attempts to silence them, non-rep's without the protection of the law are simply dismissed. I put much of this down to the professional managerialism which now controls much of the sector, especially where Universities governing bodies comprised of business people appoint 'failed in the real world' managers to run the show, their CV's often make interesting reading with the phrase 'agent for change' being commonplace amongst the worst offenders. Harvard business school has much to be blamed for.