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Research intelligence: big ideas to improve research culture

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 18 May 2021

Man in a sinking boat

Source: Getty

Working 50-hour weeks, coping with unsupportive colleagues and worrying whether your fixed-term contract will be renewed: even though these issues continue to haunt the academy, there appears to be a new determination to address them, with consensus growing that a happier and more secure work environment leads to better outcomes.

“It feels like a moment where people are seriously thinking about how we can move from a fairly negative research culture to one where scientists and researchers can thrive,” said Dan O’Connor, head of research environment at the Wellcome Trust, which has recently announced a new grant system that includes awards for mid-career researchers that last up to eight years.

The biomedical research funding charity is also scrapping mid-term reviews and creating new grant opportunities for researchers who have taken a break from research for family reasons. “We have a moral obligation to ensure research is done in a positive way, and that includes…trialling different ways of doing things,” added Dr O’Connor.

So what might be the big changes to how research is carried out, funded and monitored? Times Higher Education examines some of the bolder suggestions made to Wellcome’s recent consultation on how change might happen.

Improving work-life balance
Academia’s culture of long hours has been much discussed in recent years, but the pandemic has given the debate added impetus, with many researchers questioning the need to work late into the evening.

One researcher suggested that any application for grant funding should be accompanied by a plan to reduce long-hours culture – with universities facing fines if they do not adhere to it. Another suggested approach was including working hours as a standing item in all staff and PhD student appraisals with notes shared with HR teams.

Others wanted firmer commitments that research time would be ring-fenced, with scholars asked to confirm the time spent on teaching, administration, marking and preparation duties. “Universities mostly don’t have to prove whether their teaching and admin workload is feasible,” Barbara Zipser, a Wellcome-funded historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, told the consultation. “As a result, it often spills into working hours that should be used for research.”

Protecting PhD students and early career researchers
The vulnerability of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers on fixed-term contracts was a major concern emerging from Wellcome’s consultation, with dozens of ideas submitted on how they could be shielded from exploitation.

For some, change needed to come from the very top, with research councils attaching more strings to funding to help eliminate abuse. One researcher thought that research funders should be the main port of call for complaints about principal investigators, rather than universities, which might be reluctant to take decisive action against their biggest grant winners.

Another believed that funders should place limits on the number of PhD students employed in a laboratory, which would, in theory, allow principal investigators to devote more time to each student while also ensuring that research teams had a good balance of PhDs, postdocs, technicians and more senior staff, to avoid doctoral students being used as cheap labour.

For others, the solution lay at university level. Mandatory exit interviews for PhD students and postdocs would encourage feedback on supervisory practices, while team leaders should also be subject to anonymous reviews from junior colleagues each year.

New team science awards
Dreaming up innovative ideas to improve research culture is one thing, but having the time and institutional backing to put them into practice is more difficult.

Many people see the creation of new awards and grants to reward team science, interdisciplinary collaboration and experimental thinking about research as a useful first step towards change. The Wellcome Trust has launched one such scheme, echoing similar initiatives already running at UK universities.

“Our research culture awards are in their third year and are open to individuals and teams who could come from a particular research group or from different disciplines or across the wider sector,” said Tanita Casci, head of research policy at the University of Glasgow.

Research funders could further incentivise team science and collegiality by funding joint research fellowships for two or more people, rather than solely an individual, one researcher suggested.

“That would send an incredible signal because if you had two or more people working together from the outset – collaborating and co-supervising PhD students – you would be indicating that we are determined to change the structure of how we do research,” commented Dr Casci.

Supporting colleagues
Encouraging staff to support each other was another theme in Wellcome’s consultation, with some researchers suggesting that promotion should be dependent on showing how one had helped others to secure grant funding – echoing Glasgow’s recent inclusion of collegiality as a criterion for promotion to professor.

For others, universities could become happier places if they encouraged staff to recognise positive changes made by colleagues, rather than simply being quick to point out bad practice – a suggestion made by Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership of northern, research-intensive UK universities.

“There are lots of people in universities that hardly ever get positive feedback…the difference made by a nice email saying ‘well done’ can be huge,” said Dr Bramley. “It doesn’t take much effort but really makes somebody’s day and, whatever their job role, makes them much more likely to display that kind of behaviour again.”