Seven principles to change the UK’s research culture

Bullying and harassment is still widespread in our institutions, and this must change, say science leaders

August 6, 2020
A girl looks up at the ceiling, under the columns of the Athenian Academy
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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 need for change has been highlighted numerous times in the past 20 years, but insufficient progress has been made.

Bullying and harassment arise from several factors across the research and innovation landscape, and individuals, institutions and funding organisations must all play a role in bringing consistent and significant cultural change. We believe that strong inclusive leadership is paramount. Senior management are critically important in setting the cultural tone of institutions and funding bodies and should lead by example – demonstrating inclusive leadership practices and calling out bullying and harassment when they see it.

To support this, we suggest that institutions and funders should adopt a set of principles that hold individuals and their employers to account. This will help drive a cultural change in research – benefiting individuals, making the UK a more attractive place to work, and improving the quality of research. These principles should include:

  1. Institutions and research funders should publish annually – in a standardised and transparent format – the number of complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination. This should include outcomes (such as whether the complaint was upheld or rejected) and whether complaints were unresolved because the complainant or perpetrator had left the institution. The annual number of non-disclosure agreements, and the sums of money involved, should also be recorded. It is important that research funders and institutions work together to harmonise definitions, anonymously report cases and prevalence in a longitudinal fashion, and sustain such reporting over time.
  2. In many institutions the recording and subsequent handling of bullying and harassment complaints can be distributed across different offices. This can lead to patterns of poor behaviour among individual academic staff members being missed. Institutions should ensure good communication across all offices, or a single common way of reporting bullying and harassment, to enable any patterns of behaviour by individuals to be identified and addressed.
  3. All staff within an institution who have teaching and/or managerial responsibilities should receive an annual performance review that is logged and reviewed for quality by HR and head of department (or equivalent). For managers of groups of more than five people the review should include anonymous 360-degree feedback at least every three years.
  4. Recipients of research grants that involve supervision of individuals or small teams should have completed appropriate training in leadership, management, equality, diversity and inclusion, and tackling bullying and harassment. This training should be accredited to ensure best practice and updated on a regular basis throughout their research career.
  5. While some funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, have a strong bullying and harassment policy and list a range of sanctions that might be placed on an individual or institution, more clarity is required on how specific sanctions are associated with specific misdemeanours, and the process for ensuring sanctions are applied in a transparent and fair way should be clear. We encourage all funders to work together to adopt measures aligned with each other, and continually coordinate regarding best practice in this area.
  6. There is evidence that workplace stress, high levels of competition and job insecurity can contribute to an environment that enables or allows bullying and harassment. Both research funders and institutions should initiate work to better understand how their various incentives contribute to this and establish how they can work together to maintain research excellence while reducing these enablers.
  7. There is evidence that the current governance statutes in some universities and research institutions can protect senior academics even in serious cases of bullying and harassment. The governing boards of institutions should ensure that there are no constraints on an institution imposing appropriate sanctions, including loss of employment, on proven bullying and harassment at any level.

We believe that adopting these principles will 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. They provide a framework to deliver a cultural change for the research and innovation environment in the UK and start a constructive dialogue for action.

Excellent research is necessary, indeed essential, but no longer sufficient.

Signed in their personal capacity,

Jackie Hunter, former chief executive, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Ruth McKernan, former chief executive, Innovate UK
Sara Rankin, professor of leukocyte and stem cell biology, Imperial College London
Inês Barroso, professor of diabetes, University of Exeter
Sir Robert Lechler, senior vice-president and provost (health), King’s College London
Sir Mike Brady, professor of oncological imaging, University of Oxford
Geraint Rees, dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences, UCL
Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease, University of Edinburgh
Paul Stewart, executive dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds
Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics, Wellcome Sanger Institute

To add your signature to the letter, click here.

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Reader's comments (2)

There is also widespread practice of bulying and harassment of senior academics by senior management, with HR invariably taking the side of senior management. I sometimes act as a lay representative of such academics in the Employment Tribunal and can provide evidence of such practice.
Be careful what you ask for. Parties may use the process to bully others. And what happens when we can't agree on what constitutes bullying? This passage from Kawabata "The Master of Go" (1951) on governance that is ostensibly "democratic" comes to mind: "When a law is made, the cunning that finds loopholes goes to work. One cannot deny that there is a certain slyness among younger players, a slyness which, when rules are written to prevent slyness, makes use of the rules themselves. "

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