UKRI chair promises ‘radical’ approach to tackling harassment

Sir John Kingman hints that research councils could withhold funding in cases where universities do not address unfair treatment of staff

November 6, 2018
Scientist in lab coat
Source: Getty
Safe environments: to deal with harassment, said Sir John Kingman, ‘we could require disclosure of any allegations…and we could impose sanctions’

The chair of the UK research councils’ new umbrella body has given weight to suggestions that it could withdraw funding from universities that fail to effectively combat bullying and harassment in academia.

Sir John Kingman, chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), told Times Higher Education that the organisation had “an appetite to be radical” in its mission to cultivate a fairer and more inclusive research environment.

Sir John, whose organisation combines the seven councils with Innovate UK and Research England, which distributes quality-related support for research, said that UKRI was developing its position on bullying and harassment, “including such questions as what hard requirements and conditions of funding should be in this area”.

“We are developing our approach,” he said. “That approach must make a real difference and we will ensure that it does.”

Sir John’s comments followed a speech by Sir Mark Walport, UKRI’s chief executive, in which he announced a series of reviews of research culture, including one targeting bullying and harassment.

“We recognise that bullying and harassment is an acute problem in the sector and one that we must address,” Sir Mark told a Royal Society conference. “We have a range of options available to deal with bullying in the research community…We could require disclosure of any allegations at the point of grant application, and we could impose sanctions, ranging from best practice training for staff, through to the removal and reallocation of funding when requirements are not met or allegations have been upheld.”

The interventions come amid a series of high-profile complaints against senior leaders in the research community, most recently involving Sir Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Last week an independent inquiry cleared Sir Mike of bullying and sexism claims made by 10 former and current staff members, but he apologised for “failures in people management”.

Last month a leading geneticist, Nazneen Rahman, left her post at the Institute of Cancer Research after the Wellcome Trust revoked £3.5 million of her funding following allegations that she had bullied colleagues.

Sir John said that while he could not comment on individual cases, the UKRI board was “very clear that these behaviours are completely unacceptable” and that the organisation had “a duty to prevent these incidents, and to take appropriate action”.

He also said that addressing the factors that lie behind a lack of diversity within the research community would be vital for the UK to achieve the goals of the government’s industrial strategy. Sir John said that meeting the targets would require “the equivalent of 150,000 more researchers” and that a more inclusive working environment could help stem the attrition of female researchers.

“If we could fix the gender gap that would be the biggest single thing we could do to make a difference to UK R&D,” Sir John said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Dangerous ground on which to tread... apparently presupposing guilt just because an allegation has been made; but more importantly it's stepping beyond the role assigned to a funding council. Whilst oppossing any kind of aggression in the workplace is good, what's going to be next? It is the beginning of a slippery slope in which any kind of non-conformity with the opinions held by the funding council could interfere with research funding.
I agree, but I would add another point. If a university loses funding, who will suffer? Nine times out of ten, it won't be the managers whose responsibility it is to deal with the issue, but ordinary staff who are made redundant or don't have contracts renewed in order to balance the books.