UKRI cautious on transparency and sanctions over bullying

Radical measures to combat bullying in UK science may backfire, warns sector bullying lead, but ex-research council head urges boldness

March 15, 2022
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Drawbacks: lack of bullying data makes the scale of the issue difficult to assess

Forcing universities to publish how many complaints of bullying are reported or upheld each year may make it harder for victims to come forward because it might push institutions to suppress reporting of cases, the chair of UK science’s anti-bullying forum has suggested.

In her first interview as chair of the UK Research and Innovation-led Forum for Tackling Bullying and Harassment in Research and Innovation, Karen Salt said the group was “on the cusp” of bringing forward recommendations after meeting quarterly since January 2021.

“We’ve really been thinking about behaviours, norms and cultures, and how people can feel empowered to speak up,” said Dr Salt, UKRI’s deputy director for research culture and environment, who has led the meetings of senior administrators from universities, funders, learned societies, sector bodies and government departments.

Gathering information from UK universities has been one of the forum’s objectives in its first year, with some claiming the lack of publicly accessible institutional data makes it almost impossible to assess the scale of the problem.

The idea of requiring institutions and funders to publish their number of bullying cases as a condition of gaining research funding was put forward by sector leaders in Times Higher Education in 2020 and gained widespread support, but Dr Salt said that it may have unintended consequences.

“It is not an easy issue – in places where people feel free to challenge [authority], you would expect [reported cases] to increase rather than decrease,” said Dr Salt, who added that the size of different institutions would also make comparisons difficult. The concern would be that institutions would be driven to suppress reporting, rather than to support openness.

The forum has also heard from the National Science Foundation on how US science has tackled bullying, but Dr Salt said the UK’s more complex research landscape involving multiple funders meant the US-style removal of principal investigators found guilty of bullying from grants may be harder to enforce in Britain.

“We have multiple funders – including charities – with lots of different people and mechanisms into which funding flows,” explained Dr Salt, who said it was preferable for different agencies to work together on common policies rather than UKRI setting out its stall and expecting others to follow if all staff were to be protected.

Even if UKRI threatened to withhold PhD studentships from institutions found to have tolerated bullying – one potential sanction – this may not have much of an effect on some institutions which had relatively few UKRI-funded students, Dr Salt said. “We fund only a small amount of the PhD studentships in the UK so you would almost need something like the Department for Education [to have this policy], so we’re more interested in how we knit together the different parties,” she said.

However, Jackie Hunter, former executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council who co-authored the 2020 letter published in THE, said UKRI should take a more assertive lead with its own policies. “It would be a great example of what UKRI can do with its new role bringing together the research councils,” said Professor Hunter.

“Obviously, you don’t want to drive complaints underground but we need both carrot and stick – there must be consequences for bad behaviour. I’ve seen some really brilliant researchers leave academia because of bullying and it needs to become completely unacceptable.”


Print headline: UKRI cautious on transparency over bullying

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Reader's comments (1)

The important thing is to start recognising bullying as a prevalent problem in academia. More importantly institutions seem to have no strategy to address it, they are incapable of dealing with it or introducing policies to prevent it, unlike almost every other problem real or imagined. Why not get UKRI to require an anti-bullying strategy from all those who want funding and then tell them to report against that strategy with the number of reports being one factor and maybe staff satisfaction with the outcome of those complaints being another.