Towards a more positive research culture: what’s the role of research development staff?

Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar recently published a blog post entitled Why we need to reimagine how we do research which launched a survey into research culture.

The relentless drive for research excellence has created a culture in modern science that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved. 

As I speak to people at every stage of a scientific career, although I hear stories of wonderful support and mentorship, I’m also hearing more and more about the troubling impact of prevailing culture.

People tell me about instances of destructive hyper-competition, toxic power dynamics and poor leadership behaviour – leading to a corresponding deterioration in researchers’ wellbeing. We need to cultivate, reward, and encourage the best while challenging what is wrong.

We know that Wellcome has helped to create this focus on excellence. Our aim has rightly been to support research with the potential to benefit society. But I believe that we now also have an important role to play in changing and improving the prevailing research culture. A culture in which, however unintentionally, it can be hard to be kind.

If we want science to be firing on all cylinders, we need everyone in the research system – individuals, institutions and funders – working in step to foster a positive working culture. 

Or, as Farrar’s Wellcome colleague Ben Bleasdale puts it, [e]xcellence in research shouldn’t come at the expense of those who make it happen”

Everything is not, in fact, awesome.

Which leads me to wonder what the role of research development and other research support professionals should be in moving towards a more positive research culture. I don’t know the answer, and this post is an open invitation to share your thoughts. I’ll pull these together into a crowd-sourced post with credit for those who want it and anonymity for those who don’t. This approach seemed to work well for a previous post around supporting a new academic discipline, so perhaps it will work here too.

I don’t want to say too much in this post, but as I’m asking others I should at least share a few indicative thoughts about areas to think about.

We should look at our own profession, our own culture, and how we treat each other. In my time in research development I’ve generally found it to be a supportive profession, both internally within the universities where I’ve worked, and (especially) externally through ARMA. However, I’m white, male, heterosexual, middle age, middle class, so I’m very much playing on ‘easy mode‘. I don’t get mistaken for an administrator, and either I’m super diplomatic and great at influencing and persuading, or I get taken more seriously by some people because of my jackpot of categories of privilege. As I’ve alluded to on this blog before, I do have a slight stammer and have written about the challenges that can cause me, but it that has seldom held me back and I don’t think it’s affected how I’m perceived.

In terms of our own profession and our own behaviour, the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world” came to mind. Although… when I went to google to find out who said it, I found an interesting blog post that arguing that Mahatma Gandhi (to whom it is usually attributed) said and meant something rather more different and much more challenging. It’s not simply about living our values, but reflecting on them and changing ourselves where necessary. As a philosopher by training I also thought about Aristotle and his writings on the importance of character and virtues – if you nurture the right character and the right virtues, the chances that you’ll respond in the right way when tested or under pressure will be higher. But how do we do that? Practice, reflection, courage, and learning from the example of others, both positive and negative.

Less esoterically, a second category of issues is around our role in supporting research and researchers, especially around grant getting and grant writing activity. Competition for funding, low success rates, increasingly long and complicated application forms, and pressure from university management form part of research culture. While we rarely have formal power or authority over academic staff, we do have a measure of influence on research culture.So how do we use that influence and our roles for good? What’s our role in preventing research excellence coming at the expense of those who make it happen – which includes us, in our small way. I’ll kick things off with three issues I’ve been thinking about recently…

Firstly, forwarding funding opportunities and supporting applications. When I send funding opportunities onto academics, am I guilty of unconscious bias? Am I committing the availability error and just emailing the first people who come to mind? Does that mean some people with certain characteristics are more likely to receive those emails than others? Does unconscious bias affect how I respond to tentative enquiries about opportunities, or about how I divide my time between proposals?

Honest answer is that I don’t know. But I’ve been influenced by the pushback against ‘manels’ (all male panels at conferences)… and if my funding opportunity distribution list looks like a manel, especially a white manel (because intersectionality is key) I’m taking time to stop and think about who I might have missed. Sometimes structural inequalities or call specifics mean that I got it right first time, but it’s worth a check.

Secondly, what’s our role around workload and work life balance? Could we do more to minimise the burden on researchers at all levels of seniority? Partly this is around efficiency and systems and processes, but partly I think there are cultural issues to consider too. I recently had a discussion with organisers of a research network which ran funding calls about the appropriateness of having a deadline of (something like) 23:59 on Sunday evening. The argument was that academics preferred this because it gave them more time than, say a Friday 4:00pm deadline. But it’s time over a weekend, and arguably this increases the expectation that academics work weekends. When do we set our internal deadlines for various tasks, from REF reviews to internal peer reviews to internal deadlines for draft applications? Do we assume that academic colleagues will be working weekends?

Thirdly, when we advise on the staffing of research projects, are we creating good jobs with fair salaries and training career development opportunities? The issue of ‘good jobs’ on research projects (for academics and managers/administrators) was something that Wellcome brought up at a visit I attended a few weeks ago. I have to admit that under cost pressures on UKRI applications, there’s a strong incentive to try to cut researcher time as much as possible to reduce both employment costs and overheads. Of course, we should never over-cost for any post for any funder, but likely I’ve had a role in creating (potential) jobs that are lower quality than they might otherwise be.

That’s probably enough for now – this was supposed to be a short post. But this is an open invitation to email me with any thoughts you have about challenges we face, or steps we might take, in responding to the Wellcome Trust’s challenge to reimagine how we do research. I’ll be sharing this invitation via the ARMA Research Development email list and via Twitter for greater international reach.