Science leaders lament ‘insufficient progress’ on tackling bullying

Top researchers call for universities and funders to sign up to new set of principles to stamp out harassment

August 6, 2020
Two people in lab
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Some of the UK’s leading scientists have called on universities and funders to sign up to a new set of principles that they say will stamp out bullying and harassment in research amid concern about the “insufficient progress” made to date.

The seven principles, set out in a letter published online by Times Higher Education, include requiring institutions and funders to publish annual statistics on complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination, and the adoption of sector-wide standards on sanctions that funders can apply when individuals or organisations fall short.

The signatories to the letter, in a personal capacity, include Jackie Hunter, the former chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences; and Ruth McKernan, the former chief executive of Innovate UK.

In the letter, they say that recently “a number of specific incidents, reports and surveys have shown that bullying and harassment are widespread in the research and innovation culture of the UK”.

“This is unacceptable – it damages individual lives, stifles outstanding research and hinders innovation,” the letter says. “The need for change has been highlighted numerous times in the past 20 years, but insufficient progress has been made.”

The signatories call for institutional heads to lead by example by signing up to the principles, which also include:

  • Creating a single way of reporting harassment within an institution, or improving communication across offices, to allow patterns of behaviour to be identified
  • Ensuring that all supervisors undertake regular and accredited training in issues such as equality and diversity, and
  • Understanding how research incentives contribute to stress, competition and insecurity.

The letter says adopting its principles would “empower individuals to speak up, protect alleged perpetrators against malicious accusations and enable institutions and funders to together develop processes that are fair and transparent”.

UK Research and Innovation, the country’s funding umbrella body, set out plans for tackling bullying earlier this year, requiring institutions to have training and guidance in place and allowing – when problems occur – for suspension of funding until remedial action can be taken.

Professor Hunter told THE that there was an urgent need for “more action” on tackling harassment, and a “real opportunity” with Dame Ottoline Leyser’s appointment as UKRI’s new chief executive.

“Although there are a lot of nice words about having a good research culture, we’ve got to see some way of holding people accountable to make sure that happens,” Professor Hunter said.

Another signatory, Sara Rankin, professor of leukocyte and stem cell biology at Imperial College London, said the principles were born out of “frustration that things are still not changing, despite decades of work”.

“People can see there is little consequence to behaving badly,” she said. “But these are simple actions institutions can do; why wouldn’t you sign up?”

A UKRI spokesman said there was “no place for bullying and harassment” in research and that all recipients of its funding “must have robust systems in place for preventing and addressing” misconduct.

“We welcome additional ideas for how to tackle this important issue and will consider the recommendations made by the group as part of our ongoing work in this area,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

It's all well and good, no doubt mostly focused on academics being bullied by other academics, but what about the other staff academics bully by 'punching-down' on? Technical staff as especially vulnerable to this, especially when academics, and the academic unions, close ranks to 'protect' one of their own.
There is also a very important issue of academics being bullied by Management. I sometimes act as a lay representative of such academics at the Employment Tribunal. I would like to contribute to developing of the new policy by providing the evdience of this type of bullying.