BETH: Welcome to Café Culture at the festival. We're really delighted to have a set of brilliant guests with us today for this special edition of Café Culture. I'm Beth, I'm going to facilitate our session today and my normal role is leading Wellcome's UK and EU Policy and Advocacy Team and our Reimagine Research Programme. I am going ask each of our guests to introduce themselves in turn before we kick off. Dave, can I come over to you.
DAVE: Yes, thank you Beth. My name is Dave Jones. I am the Dean for the NIHR Academy and I am a working Clinical Academic in Hepatology based in Newcastle.
BETH: Thanks Dave. Ottoline over to you.
OTTOLINE: My name is Ottoline Leyser. I still am pretending to be a part developmental geneticist from the University of Cambridge but actually for the next five years I am CEO of UK Research and Innovation.
BETH: Thanks Ottoline, I'm going to come to Charlie and then to Jim.
CHARLIE: Thanks Beth. I am Charlie Swanton. I am a lung cancer doctor at University College London Hospital and I am a group leader here at the Francis Crick Institute and I also work for Cancer Research UK as their chief clinician.
JIM: And I am Jim Smith. I am at Wellcome Trust where I have been involved in creating our new science strategy and like Charlie I have a lab at the Crick and that's where we are now actually, here at the Crick and I am an embryologist, I am interested in birth embryogenesis.
BETH: Thank you both. Without any further ado let's kick off. So welcome to our Café Culture session. Today we're going to work through the prompt cards that you can see on the next slide, which include quotes from our interviewees in the research that Wellcome conducted and also some stats from those survey findings. So I would like to ask each of you to you look through those now, I will give you a minute or so, to pick out one or two that you think really resonate with you or that you have got something that you want to comment on. We'll focus initially on looking at those symptoms and talking about how we feel about them and then in the next stage we're going to move on and talk about diagnosing that challenge and what we might do about it. So on this slide you can see quotes from our interviewees and stats from the research findings. Ottoline could I come to you first to pick out one or two that resonate with you and get you to tell us your reflections on them.
OTTOLINE: I suppose there's, at some level, a sort of tension between a quote that is researchers often see their work as rather more important than a job, it's a vocation, a way of life. I think people come into research with an absolute passion and commitment and excitement about what they're doing and they're doing it for a whole variety of different motives but they are motives about learning and understanding about the world, either just for the sheer joy of learning or because they want to tackle some of the key problems that we're facing and I think that's a very widely held ambition and motive. And then that culture research system that has this very high level of competition and the rules governing the competition don't straightforwardly map on to people's visions and ambitions about what people are trying to achieve. So that would map on to this creative, it's very cut throat in science and the pressure in these two environments where people are working under fear of not delivering rather than a desire to produce good results. So I think those two quotes maybe capture this deep kind of tension in the current system that's associated with the way that competition is driven through it and somewhere on here there was a thing about hyper competition, 78% believe that high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive working conditions. And I would sort of agree with that but I wouldn't necessarily say it's the high levels of competition which will always be in science, it's the rules for winning that are the problem.
BETH: Thanks Ottoline, that was beautifully articulated. I'm sure we could discuss that topic for ages but let's move on. Dave, could I come to you to pick out one or two of these cards that resonated with you.
DAVE: I think, thank you, I think they all resonate. I don't think there is anything here that surprises me in terms of what people are saying. These are themes that I have heard continually in the five or six years I have been doing my current role and I think it's about short termism is one of the problems. And I think sometimes when we perhaps a bit later on in our careers, in more secure positions, sometimes forget what it feels like in a world where putting roots down is very, very difficult and you have got competing tensions, haven't you between flexible and being nimble in terms of answering important scientific questions, the science model we have and what that means to individuals. And I think I am in a fortunate position, my entire role within NIHR is to look at the entire role through the eyes of the trainees and I worry about what this does to people and their attractiveness and I think, when we have looked at number of these issues we see people coming into science because of high ideals, that sense that Ottoline absolutely brought out that this is more than a job, this is something really important. There is a real desire and interest and passion and what drives people out is not a loss of that. It is the sense that this is something I just can't win at and I can't actually put my family or my future through the risk of all of that and fundamentally that's not good for individuals. It's also wasteful for the country and for the system, if we have very highly trained people who come into a system are then lost through the system, then I think we're not making the best use of the resources that we have. So nothing here surprises me, it all worries me. The art of course is how do we address it and we're going to come on to that, aren't we?
BETH: We are, thanks. I think there is one of these cards which really sums up what you just said there, which is, "young people can go on for several years before they get a permanent position, the pressure of not having a permanent position or even a job is not very nice. Talented people can sometimes give up".
DAVE: And I think just to add to that, I think we sometimes we forget you can't get a loan to buy a car or a house without permanent contracts and this abstract sense that I don't have security is one thing but it actually has really important practical impacts on people and I think that worries them. The flip side of course is the more security you give to some people the more you lock other people out of the system and that's the inherent balance you have to strike between flexibility to allow opportunity for many versus security for a lesser number, in a world where the resource is fixed.
BETH: Ottoline. Come in on that and then we'll go to some other cards.
OTTOLINE: I just wanted to throw into the mix at this point before we get too channelled on the definition of what a research career or even what a stable career looks like. It's really important that people with these incredible high level skills that Dave was talking about are moving through the entire research and innovation system in a flexible way, which means thinking about careers, not just the one that's right in front of their noses, but right across the system in policy, in public engagement and public perception and across industry and so on and creating porosity right across the system is absolutely crucial for it to work well and work properly.
BETH: Dave, a quick reflection from you before we move on.
DAVE: I couldn't agree more, I couldn't agree more and I look back at people I've worked with over the years who have gone on to have very rewarding careers, a whole diversity of different areas where they used their scientific skills. And I think we absolutely need to encourage that and I think one of the things that we sometimes see as a problem is people perceive success and failure in terms of following the traditional academic path. Success is an enriching career and opportunities that you enjoy, that allow you to support yourself and I think that comes in various different flavours and too many people I think maybe go for interviews for jobs after a period of post docking and see themselves in terms of success and failure by not following the academic path and that can sometimes lead to them underselling themselves.
BETH: I could talk for hours about that but I will move us on. Charlie, Jim, who wants to come in there next and have you got a different card that you can pick it up for us?
CHARLES: So maybe I could focus a little bit on the research incentive side of things. Sort of the incentives as you are coming through a research career, very much focused on first or last author the papers and we talk a lot about collaboration but funders don't necessarily incentivise that collaboration and this is sort of, this sort of reverse incentive on the one hand we're asked to collaborate but on the other hand we know that when we apply for grants it's really the number of first and last author papers that really matter, at least at the moment. And I don't think we're completely aligned from that perspective. And then there is this issue about delivery versus really understanding nature. And really understanding nature isn't all about getting positive results, that sheer negative result can be just as important in understanding nature as a positive result. Unfortunately we're incentivised to publish positive data and it's very hard to build a career of fathoming out natures intricacies through negative data. So how do we align that? How do we reward collaboration out with firsts and lasts author publications is a puzzle to me at the moment. So I don't think we have solutions for that. And then the issues around people management, I think are really interesting on this page. I think you know, we're trained to be scientists but we receive very little training on managing people and managing teams, incentivising teams, understanding failure, managing failure and managing success equally. And I think we don't have solutions there either. And then I was particularly worried about this issue around research integrity and people feel vulnerable to reporting mishaps or problems in research integrity along their career paths, I don't have solutions for that immediately either. I think that's an interesting question which you could dwell on around fostering right research culture where we can make sure we incentivise people to come forward if they see problems in research integrity during their daily working lives.
BETH: Thanks Charlie. You have spoken really powerfully about a number of the cards here, but we have one that says, "79% of those who manage people enjoy it but less than half have received training". That was a really strong theme we had coming through and this idea, the stat we see that "35% would not feel comfortable reporting instances of compromised research" and I think this is another quote here that says, "if you are complaining about the supervisor it's always going to be tricky. Formal routes are talked about as, you can begin this, but it is going to be a bit messy." And I think that's an interesting reflection on some of the power structures and some of the patronage that exists in science, so let's, perhaps we can come back to that. Jim, I wonder if I can be, if I can prompt you to talk about one of these in particular because I know you're very involved in EDIS as well as your work at Wellcome but I am struck by this card that says, as, "somebody that's not white, we tend to think that anything we say is not really considered on the same level of merit as if someone who is from here says the same thing". And I think it's interesting that I think we should pause and reflect and say we are a group of white people and we look like most senior people in academia and recognise that challenge that that creates, but I would be really grateful Jim if you could give us some reflections on that.
JIM: Yes, thanks Beth. I hope you will forgive me if I just say two things in addition very quickly to what you have asked me to speak about. The first one is about the breath of research that Ottoline and Charlie were referring to, that a successful career in science isn't simply following a conventional academic path leading perhaps to running a laboratory. It is about moving out into other places and I think that message needs to be made very, very clearly because to many people, failure or not following that conventional path is viewed as failure and it's not failure, it's following a different part and it's entirely right but many people do that. So, I think that's a message that needs to be wiped out. People should not think that way and one of the ways of doing that is through leadership and the leadership card to me is one of the most important cards here. People in science often enter leadership roles not through their leadership skills but through their success in science. I was successful as a young scientist and moved into leadership roles relatively young. Now, I could have been completely hopeless at leadership, I may well be completely hopeless at leadership but to throw me into that, at that early stage, was a mistake, first of all because nobody knew whether I could lead and secondly it was taking me away from that I was good at. So I think leadership is all important. Leadership will help define what Ottoline called the rules for winning. Leadership will help in areas like discrimination. Leadership will help, as Charlie was saying, decide who is contributing properly to the science. Not simply based on whether you are first author or last author but much more nuanced levels than that. So, scientists who are in leadership positions need to help to lead. And many scientists in my acquaintance, when you mention leadership courses will roll their eyes to be perfectly honest, won't take leadership courses seriously at all. I have taken some leadership courses and you know there is a huge amount to learn. So I think one of the elements in science that I would utterly emphasise is leadership. And if there were one thing that would come out of Wellcome's new strategy it would be to make sure that those people who lead research groups or who lead centres or institutions, lead properly because it's all important. Leadership in science is about taking more pleasure in the success of others than you take in your own success. And that is actually rather a rare insight. So that's my little thing on leadership and I think it's really important. You're right, we are a group of white people here and I was going to say had you not already prompted me that we are a group of white people here and we should not be. In the same way that Jeremy Farrar and I wouldn't sit on a panel that was only men, I am uncomfortable sitting on a panel where it's exclusively white and at all times in everything we do we have to be aware of this. We have to be aware of the message we are sending out to the outside world if we present ourselves as a group of older, sorry Charlie, but older white people and we have to work at that at all times because it's that message that is so important. You referred back to EDIS, for those of you who don't know what EDIS is, it's an organisation that we set up initially between the Crick, the Wellcome Trust and GSK. EDIS stands for equality, diversity and inclusion in science and health and its mission is to make sure that everybody, no matter where you come from, whether it's your ethnicity, your sexual preference, your gender whatever it is, has an equal opportunity for a career in science and health and will benefit from the outcome of research in science. So as well as careers in science and health it will include making sure, for example, that longitudinal population studies will have a breath of ethnicity as well as everything else, as well as age, as well as gender and so on. So, I honestly can't think that there is much, this is one of the really important things that we have to work on at all times. And it's difficult for those of us who are white, middle aged, nearing the end of their careers to keep remembering this but it's key that we have to because it's only by doing this that we will improve the health of everybody. And Covid-19 now, it's a prime example of where we have seen that people from certain ethnic backgrounds suffer more from Covid-19 than others. We should have spotted that way earlier than we did and we should have been taking action on that way earlier than we did. I don't have any solutions, we're going to come on to solutions later but I feel incredibly strongly about this.
BETH: We now will define some challenges that we have talked about and then we'll skip quickly on to solutions for those. I think we'll only have a chance to work through one issue in detail because we have had so much to say already. But I suggest that we pick out three challenges and from you I have heard three very clear themes come out. One about rewriting the rules of winning and the incentive structures, one about creating stronger leadership in academia and another about valuing other career pathways. Do you think that's a fair reflection of what we have discussed and would they be helpful things for us to put into these cards or is there anything anyone else wants to throw in or different ways you would talk about those? I will start to type them in but I can change them as we go.
CHARLES: Beth, could we have the diversity aspect in science as well, that final card we talked about at the end. It's the fourth point.
OTTOLINE: In terms of picking a question I think at some level most of these things are quite deeply interconnected and give the unruliness of this panel it almost doesn't matter which one we pick because we'll cover the other ones as well. So, for example, in the context of leadership, I think it's one of the reasons that we don't think about it hard enough and we don't take the extraordinary range of opportunities that are available to go on leadership training. It's not that there aren't opportunities to do it, it is that it's undervalued. It's not part of the incentive system, it's not formally recognised in the rules for winning the competition and so why would do you it.
BETH: On the basis of what Ottoline said, why don't we focus on rewriting the rules of winning because really that is a systemic challenge that we have identified that underpins all of these things? Would people be happy if we pull that one out and then you will all have an excuse to pull in anything that you want to on the other ones, as we go through? So, let's move on to our challenge card. We'll only be able to make a start on this. I don't expect us to be able to solve the problem in the 10 or 15 minutes we have left. But here we're proposing that we think about three ideas for how we can make change in the system. On the left hand side you can see some of the actors who we might want to change things and on the right some of the leaders that we have at our disposal, whether that's supporting different behaviours, requiring different behaviours or rewarding different behaviours. So, it's the moment you have all been waiting for. Everyone has been very keen to give solutions so far. So, if we focus on this challenge of rewriting the rules of winning, where would you start?
OTTOLINE: Do you want me to kick off?
BETH: Yes, please.
OTTOLINE: Something that I think is quite interesting about this is that for what I think are probably quite good motives to do with thinking about equality of opportunity let's say as opposed to equity, we have written down in gradually more and more restrictive ways the rules for winning. We have decided they need to be objective with some kind of interesting definition of objective. So, we are now focusing incredibly intensely on a very small number of things that we think can be objectively measured and compared across individuals and that is fundamentally problematic in what we're trying to achieve as a research and innovation system, precisely because we absolutely need diversity, we need difference, we need all kinds of different things coming together to create that environment. And where we have decided that we only need two things, people who publish first author papers and win grants and nothing else matters, we have immediately crushed a whole range of diverse contributions out of the system, particularly when we map those things, publishing the papers and getting the grants, on to individuals when it's clearly not individuals who are delivering that. So, we need to actually step back from what we consider to be these robust objective assessment criteria and think much more holistically. We need to be able to take into account a much wider range of things, a much wider range of skills, much more qualitative evidence and we need to be explicit about the fact that we need kind of portfolio approaches. We need people with very different things together. And so what the best grant to fund is and who the best person to appoint is, is critically dependent on what you funded already and whom you have appointed already, it is not a decision you can make one by one by one. So just the whole way we think about the competition I think has to shift into that much more portfolio way of thinking that generates the diversity that we need. We have got to think about this as systemic problem with multiple people acting simultaneously across the system to drive change.
BETH: That's great. Jim, let me come over to you.
JIM: So, this is another way of saying what you have said Ottoline, that we are in a position of stable equilibrium where minor changes to the system that any one component might change would be ineffective because things will just rock back to where they were and to make change it will either require a huge shift on the part of, for example, funders and perhaps Wellcome might be in a position do that over the next year or two, or it will and indeed that might not be sufficient, a single funder and only a funder, or will it require a concerted effort by all the players? And I am inclined to think that the latter is what we would need.
BETH: Over to you Dave.
DAVE: A couple of thoughts, the first is actually people may not be aware but there is, on the ground over the last couple of years, a really effective network of working around issues of common interest for people in training. So there is a whole culture and we, NIHR work very closely with MRC and Cancer UK and Wellcome Trust on an almost weekly basis about ensuring that we act collectively to look after the interests of people. I think that's been an incredibly positive thing. So I think it is system change and we have got the systems to do it. But what I was going to say before was that one of the ways we have approached that is this dual track approach, which is to have a strong sense of principle, what are we trying to achieve, why are we trying to achieve it, the big goal and then having, not being frightened of cumulative small interventions that help you along the way. Those on their own can be small but they will add up. And sort of principles on their own just are out there and of course you can agree with them but they don't go anywhere. So it's that combination of, this is what we're doing and this is why as a matter of principle, and the EDI one is a classic example of that but then what you do is have a series of progressive steps that can help with it. To change the game rules, I think that the publishers have a role to play because one of the reasons why you have the issues around research integrity is the fact that only positive papers will be published in high impact journals and you need those papers to win the game. And I think the journals are very happy publishing editorials about science integrity but at the same time rejecting very well constructed scientifically very valid negative studies, and I think some way around that would, I think, be very helpful. Carl Popper would tell us that actually a negative study is a much more valuable piece of science but he didn't have to do a rack return.
BETH: Thanks Dave.
CHARLES: When you talk about the rules of winning in a funny sort of way it might somewhat perpetuate the problem we're trying to solve. When I think of winning, I think of a game, I think of one person that wins the race, winner takes all and then it begs the question, well, what is the game we're trying win and the role of luck in research careers which we haven't really talked about at all. And I think it's worth just thinking about that for a second or two. So we focus on luck, I look at where I am, for example, and I can see many aspects of my research career that have led me to where I am now that are based really on luck, being in the right place, at the right time, at the right opportunities. So how do we, to increase diversity in the work place, enable a system where the opportunities are made available to those people at the right times during their research careers? And that's not an easy question to solve. Then there is the question of research incentives that perhaps orientate oneself around the game that one is trying to win. And so thinking about this in the context of medicine and life sciences, some of the big questions that we're facing in medicine cannot be solved by lone teams, by lone researchers or small groups. They require a mandate, large collaborations. In my field, in cancer medicine, we depend upon clinical trials, access to hospital resources, we depend upon molders and wet lab scientists to solve the sort of functional observations that we take from the genomic states that we're studying. So we require massive collaboration on a multidisciplinary scale and then that leads to papers and publications where we may have 40, 50 authors on a paper. How do we appropriately reward authorship both first and last? And I think that comes down to understanding that maybe four or five joint first authors and three or four co-corresponding authors and then the authorship in the middle is equally important in many ways because there will be fundamental aspects to every paper that couldn't have been done without middle authors on that paper. So how could we as funders recognise that contribution and reward it to be able to repeat and expand upon studies like this, to enable great discoveries in medicine to occur?
BETH: I know we're running very short on time. I am going to ask you all for one final reflection. We'll go around the table because otherwise I think we'll eat into more of your day that we have asked for. So Charlie I will come back to you at the end but Ottoline can I come to you for final thoughts and then I will go to Dave.
OTTOLINE: Yes, so in the context of the slide we're looking at, I think what we have talked about is the need for everybody in the system to take their part of the responsibility and their role in driving things forward. Clearly we as funders have a key role and one of the things I would like to highlight is an example from UKRI where we are in the process of rolling out a different form of CV to assess applicants and it includes narrative statements about all of things we've talked about. A narrative statement about what you have contributed to knowledge, about what you have contributed to supporting those around you, the next generation of researchers, about what you have contributed more broadly to the system in terms of leadership contributions, all kinds of context and your contribution to peer review and how you are engaging with much wider stakeholders than just those in the immediate academic system, which speaks to understanding the whole system and the roles one can adopt right across the system. So, all of these things are quite well encapsulated in the system. And that relates to the last point I want to make looking at this slide. You have a big red blob called require which is the thing many people reach to in an attempt to shift culture and it's a very ineffective and blunt tool. Many of the things we have done, that we have talked about, that have driven things in the wrong direction have been introduced with good motives to require people to do the right thing. We have to start in the way that Charlie said, with understanding our values and our principles and the vision we're trying to achieve, and aligning the incentives to support and reward right across the system, to drive that in the right direction and although require, it's a tool and we can have it, I am not saying there should be nothing that's required, it is never the solution to fixing these tricky feedback driven culture related problems. I will stop there.
BETH: Thank you Ottoline. Dave.
DAVE: Yeah, I think this is a solvable issue, I think initiatives like this are really important. I think the comment about systems change is absolutely right. This needs a systematic rethinking. I think we have been talking this for a long, long time and it's finally time for us to do it and I think that's really, really important and I think this does need change. My final observation, we have talked about leadership and many people with leadership experience will be familiar with the concept called the cultural web, and the cultural web is way of understanding why it is that systems are resistant to change and at the centre of cultural web is the hard core beliefset that stop you changing. There are symbols and there are mythologies about what you do that mean you can't change and we have always done it this way, this is the way we have to do it and actually usually those are not the case and it's those deep rooted foundation myths about the system that you need to challenge. Without that you will tinker around the edges and I think that's why it is some of those really big structural concepts we need to challenge and I think the funders working together with the broader community are going to be the engines of change.
BETH: Beautifully put Dave. Jim, I will come to you and then hand over to Charlie for his final thoughts.
JIM: I agree with Dave, I think I was going to talk about leadership again, I do think leadership, courageous visionary leadership will be able do those things that we are saying that are important. They will help us define the rules of success, will make sure, for example, that we recognise that to achieve equity as opposed to quality but to achieve equity will require money, will require effort. It's not just something you can wave your hands at. You have to spend money on equity and if we believe in equity and if we believe in the advantages and the outcomes of equity then we will have to spend money on it and leadership will recognise that and make it happen. Good leadership will make sure that the journals will accept negative results and we know that there are journals that will publish negative results and those negative results, the funders can ensure will be recognised. So I think many of the opportunities are in our hands, we just have to do it.
BETH: Thank you Jim, Charlie.
CHARLES: I honestly don't have anything more to add to that. I think you have all said it beautifully. Just perhaps one last thing which would be, this is an incredible career. It never ceases to amaze me how many opportunities there are outside the lab environment that we need to focus and stress and I think in many ways we need to get into schools more than we're doing and sing from the rooftops about what an enjoyable and amazing career a life in science is and what it can offer both you personally and the community at large.
BETH: That's a brilliant optimistic note to end on. Thank you, to all of you for taking part and being such good sports. It's been a wonderful discussion this morning.
The kits guide researchers to explore research culture together, from discussing the findings of our culture survey, to deciding who can drive change, and how.
In this video, senior leaders from UK research funders hold their own Café Culture session. They share their personal reflections on building a better culture, contributing ideas alongside the hundreds of others who have used the kits to prompt a discussion.
- Host: Beth Thompson, Wellcome
- Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK
- Dave Jones, National Institute for Health Research
- Jim Smith, Wellcome
- Ottoline Leyser, UK Research and Innovation
The session was filmed in accordance with the government's Covid-19 guidelines at the time of filming.