Tying funding to tackling bullying could feed secrecy, UKRI told

Research umbrella organisation puts off decision on whether to introduce ultimate sanction until more evidence is available

October 22, 2019
Source: iStock

UK Research and Innovation has said that institutions applying for its grants must have policies in place to prevent bullying and harassment, but has stopped short for now of stripping funding from organisations that fail to tackle the issue effectively.

In a position statement published on 22 October, the umbrella body for the UK’s funding councils said that recipients of funding must adopt guidance on preventing and responding to bullying and harassment drawn up by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, or an equivalent.

UKRI said that it would also draw up a code of conduct for conducting investigations into alleged wrongdoing, and that it would commission research into the scale of the problem.

While this and other work progressed, UKRI said, “we will continue to support organisations in tackling these problems. We will set out in our next update to our funding terms and conditions in 2020 the actions we may take when our expectations are not met.”

Sir Mark Walport, UKRI’s chief executive, has previously suggested that research organisations that failed to prevent bullying and harassment could be stripped of their funding.

Three large funders – the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and, in the US, the National Science Foundation – introduced policies along these lines last year.

But an evidence review commissioned by UKRI and published alongside the position statement says that it is “still an open question” whether threatening the removal of funding “will produce the desired culture change or whether they will provide incentives for institutions to focus on symbolic rather than substantive compliance…whilst also deterring whistle-blowers from reporting workplace misconduct for fear of jeopardising a grant that funds their own work”.

The review, conducted by researchers at King’s College London, highlighted that the tying of biomedical research funding in the UK to the Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation scheme “created such strong incentives to receive the award that it risked doing so at the risk of sweeping issues under the carpet, and therefore at the expense of achieving substantive change”.

However, Jennifer Rubin, executive chair of the Economic and Social Research Council, and UKRI’s champion for equality, diversity and inclusion, said that stripping institutions that fell short of funding was by no means ruled out.

“If…withdrawing funding becomes the evidence-supported thing to do, we are absolutely happy to go there,” she told Times Higher Education.

UKRI was looking to drive a culture of transparency and reporting, rather than forcing concerns underground, Professor Rubin explained. Therefore, the umbrella body was also exploring other consequences for universities that did not meet standards, such as creation of detailed action plans, increased monitoring, and referral to bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Based on evidence and consultation with the sector, we want to figure out what will be the best way to make it clear that [bullying and harassment] behaviour is unacceptable and that there will be consequences if it is not tackled,” Professor Rubin said.

She said that university policies on the issue would need to be more effective than just “hanging on the wall or buried on a website”. “People need to know how universities will conduct investigations, that they are independent, and that they have the confidentiality that is needed so people can come forward and be treated with respect and not have negative consequences for doing so”, Professor Rubin said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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