JAMES: We'll start now! Good, sorry! Welcome, welcome, everyone, welcome back, very pleased you could join us. I hope you're enjoying the festival so far. My name is James Wilsdon, he/him, and I'm based both at the University of Sheffield and also at the Research on Research Institute, which is a relatively new venture, joint with the Wellcome Trust and others to undertake transformative and translational research on research systems, cultures and decision-making. So very close to the issues we're going to discuss today.
We're all going to briefly introduce ourselves and describe ourselves for the benefit of those who can hear, but not see the panel. So I'm a white man, late 40s, brown hair, fading all too quickly into grey! Definitely a few pounds heavier coming out of lockdown than I was going in! And we're going to spend the next hour talking about workplace culture and how this can be continuously improved. We've got a fantastic panel to guide us along the way and also, I hope, plenty of opportunity for you all to feed in with questions and to get a discussion going.
So I'll introduce the panel in a moment. The workplace, of course, the topic of the discussion, has been a rather elastic concept this past year. But whether work now, or in the future, involves perching on the edge of the kitchen table or basing yourself in an office, a healthcare setting, or in a lab, workplace culture is the character and personality of our organisations. It's made up of a rather complex mix of organisational leadership, values, behaviours, and the attitudes of those working in an organisation. We all know good and bad workplace cultures when we experience them. But we also know that building more open and inclusive cultures is an ongoing and at times difficult process, so in this session we're going to explore how different techniques - and particularly experimental approaches, gathering evidence and acting on that - can help us to drive that kind of change forward. Before we get fully into it, a few quick housekeeping points. First, on accessibility features. You can activate closed captions via the settings on the lower right corner of your screen. Live captions through a link that will be shared - it has already and will be reshared again in the chat.
Most importantly, how do you take part? How do you interact with us? We'll be taking your questions. We should have plenty of time, as I say, for those. Please share your comments throughout the next hour in the event chat and use the Q&A function to submit questions. Mention, if you do, if there is a particular panellist that you want to direct your question towards and we'll get through as many of those as time allows. And do share your thoughts - if you aren't overwhelmed by the array of channels available - through social media, using the #ReimagineResearch hashtag.
So to kick off, I'm going to get our speakers to answer a question to start, to give us three or four minutes of their thoughts, and we will go from there. Can I remind all the speakers to briefly introduce themselves the way that I've done. So first I'm going to turn to Anjali Shah. Anjali, do we, as a community, experiment enough with improving research culture while engaging with and being respectful of those working in it? Over to you.
ANJALI: Thank you, James. Hello, everyone. My name is Anjali Shah. I use the pronouns she/her. I am an Asian woman of Indian origin. I've got long, dark hair. And I'm wearing a pink top. So, getting to the question that James posed, I think it's really exciting that we are at a point in time where all of these different stakeholders have done so much work establishing what is the current research culture and what kind of research culture would we like to have. And it's so exciting that it's now time to start experimenting with ways to improve research culture. But it is a really important question to say that we want to engage people with these experiments and that we also want to be respectful of the fact that they have roles and responsibilities in other areas.
I am co-chair of the UK Research Staff Association. I am a researcher myself. I have been for a number of years. And for a few years, I've also been a research er/developer. But I've been so inspired by the developments over the last two years that I am returning to a full-time career in research. And I'm a scientist, like all of the people I represent who are research staff across the UK. We love experimenting. We want to be involved in initiatives to improve research culture. So my answer to the question was given by Robin Steward yesterday from Heart and Soul, which is about co-production. From the very start to the very end of an experiment, let's engage our research staff, let's value them. We are scientists, we are professionals. We would love to engage with experiments to improving research culture and it's wonderful that, you know, James is from the Research on Research Institute. Already there are plans in progress to start these experiments.
So I think there's a community there who are looking forward to getting involved in these pilot studies to improve research culture. I think the Wellcome Town Hall Report has brought out 12 clear themes of areas that need improvement. Starting with the lack of job security, but also looking at how to reward and incentivise all the different types of work that we do. There's a lot there and we're looking forward to engaging with it. But to be truly inclusive, we have to be sensitive and mindful that our researchers have a lot on their plates just with their work, but they also have caring responsibilities, or they might be dealing with disabilities of their own, like me. Or they come from under-represented communities - I'm from the BME community, which is under-represented in research, particularly as you go up the pipeline. We need to be mindful that these people are called upon already in a number of different ways and we have to think about how to engage them, include them, but also be respectful that they have a lot of other things on their plate. So I think that's it for me. I look forward to answering your questions after the other speakers have answered their questions.
JAMES: Brilliant, Anjali, thank you very much for getting us off to a great start. We're going to turn next to Candy Rowe, and, Candy, I have a question for you - to help in building and improving research culture, what kind of mindset do we need researchers to adopt? Particularly as they're embarking, you know, on the start of their research career? Over to you, Candy.
CANDY: OK, thanks, James. So I'm Candy Rowe and my pronouns are she/her. I'm a researcher at Newcastle University, I work in the field of animal behaviour, but I'm also the Dean of Research Culture and Strategy for the university. I'm white, like James in my late 40s, and I have blonde hair that has grown so long in lockdown that I've had to tie it back to look any way half-decent today, and I'm wearing a white shirt. So I think this is a bit of a tricky question, but I'd like to come at it from a couple of perspectives. I suppose the first is personal reflection from when I first started my career, and I think the issues that we are talking about, you know, that are so visible now - you know, the cracks were starting to appear then and I remember going to conferences where conversations would revolve around, you know, how we were being evaluated, and the effect that that has on research and the researchers themselves. I think at that time there really was no way to challenge or change things - there were no routes we could do that by. So I think for me, what's really exciting to see at the moment is, I suppose, the increasing number of forums for early career researchers and academics to have their voices heard. And in terms of mindset f that's what we're going to call it, I think we need people at the start of their careers to really recognise and take up these opportunities. And really be empowered to inform, help us experiment, with all the changes that are happening now.
I think the second perspective comes from my role as institutional lead for research culture at Newcastle. We've committed to providing thriving and nurturing environments for everyone in our research community, and we want to find people who really share those values and that ambition. One thing that - one way we've been doing that is through our new fellowship programmes, so these are five-year fellowships that come with a salary and support to really help people develop their research and their research leadership and because they're going to be our, you know, researchers of the future, we're looking for people who aren't just really passionate about what they do and their research, but who are also open to working collaboratively, often in interdisciplinary ways, who are ready to support the people and the careers around them - so that includes postgraduate students, academics and professionals, and really understand what it means to be a role model for equality, diversity and inclusion. And because this matters to us, we evaluate their potential for contributing positively to our research culture at all stages of the recruitment process, and it's really one of our key criteria for the scheme. But then it's also important for us to help them grow as a cohort and develop the skills they need to become the leaders they want to be once they've arrived in the institution. I just want to say that I'm not suggesting that this is the answer to changing research culture - it's not about relying on a new generation of researchers to move through the system for change. I do fully recognise that there need to be top-down changes at any levels but I think we can really benefit from the fresh ideas and the thinking the researchers at the start of their careers can really bring. So back to the question around the mindset and what we might need from researchers starting their careers. I think we need people to be wanting to be collaborative, supportive, and inclusive and really open to new ways of working. But I think we also need them to share the energy and ambition to improve research culture, to really help, shape and deliver the changes that we all want to see and a lot of this is going to feel very experimental. But what a great experiment to be part of.
JAMES: Brilliant, thank you, Candy, that's a great note to end on. So we've had a couple of perspectives now from researchers with different vantage points on the system. We'll turn now to the funder perspective and we're going to hear now from Diego Baptista. Diego, your question is, what role can funders play in encouraging experimental approaches to research and research culture? Over to you.
DIEGO: Thanks, James. Hey, everybody, I'm super-happy to participate in this and be here. So my name is Diego Baptista, as James said, and my preferred pronouns are he and him. I’m a brown man with short, black, salt-and-pepper hair and brown eyes and I'm wearing a pastel multicoloured top, and my background probably has too many plants! I'm the diversity and inclusion adviser for our research culture programme at Wellcome and in addition to this role I've been spending a lot of time working on how we at Wellcome can really change ourselves through how we fund and our new strategy to incentivise the environments we fund to be more inclusive and support positive research cultures. So that is the question - how can funders play a significant role in encouraging experimental approaches to research culture? I think a really good first thing that funders could do would be to set the goalpost, but obviously keep in mind many of the things Anjali mentioned earlier - you want to work with the entire system to set this goalpost, you want it to be sort of a shared goal to work towards, and so you obviously have to work quite hard to get many perspectives in the sector to describe those goals.
I think there's a really good opportunity for this in the upcoming People and Culture strategy coming out of the government's R&D strategy. Once we all have a more clear direction, I think funders can actually do more to pull on the creativity of the research community to figure out how to actually move towards these goals. As I mentioned, this can't be a, "We've set the goals, now you deliver on them," it has to be a, "We all want to move towards these goals, how can we as funders help"? Being conscious that in lots of cases funders aren't actually working in the research environments and we're not so well-placed to design these experimental approaches. I'd say funders on average don't really give researchers the space and support to experiment with how they can develop a positive research culture through most funding. Very few funders ask about this in an application. Even if you are a funder selected for this in a competitive process there's considerable variability for funders post-award offerings, if you will, to support researchers to experiment with these kinds of things and I'd argue we place way too much value on a single individual to produce these super-shiny, scientific things without actually equipping them with all the tools they might need to do this. Obviously things like the Research on Research Institute have a focus on experimentation and research culture are brilliant and I would argue we need to expand these kinds of activities.
How we as funders empower not only individual researchers and the staff that support them and work on the research themselves to experiment is really important, obviously, but also sort of how funders can incentivise research institutes, centres and universities that we work with on a programmatic level is really important. As our new head of research environment says, the best way for Wellcome to approach research culture is not to set up another series of targets and metrics but to redistribute the freedom and resources we have in order to enable the research culture to thrive, and I'd add in order to make people experiment with research cultures as well. And the last thing I'll say is one really critical aspect of this, through the lens of looking at university and funder relationships, is to build actual trust between the two. So we know that the trust isn't great and we want universities to tell us things when they're bad so we can figure it out together and, if it's appropriate, how we can start moving towards great. So I'll stop there, thanks, James.
JAMES: Excellent, thank you, Diego, that's great - lots of lines for us to pursue in the discussion in a moment. Before we do that, we're going to hear from our last but by no means least speaker in the line-up - Matt Westmore - who is going to give us the perspective from the heart of some pretty big research cultures in the system. Matt, your question - what can we learn from examples of innovative thinking that are already under way, already in place, in different workplace cultures? Over to you?
MATT: Thanks, James. So my name is Matt Westmore, preferred pronouns are he/him. I'm chief executive of the Health Research Authority we are one of the regulators for health and adult social care research in England and working in partnership across the UK. I'm generally quite a smiley person, so hopefully I'll smile through most of this! I'm a white man, middle-aged, have shaved hair, what there is left of it, and I'm wearing a blue jumper and pink shirt today. I want to give you a perspective from a regulator, because that's what the Health Research Authority is, but also in terms of us as an employer as well. So I'll touch on some of the impacts on our research culture but also on the workplace itself. So regulators like the HRA grapple with what I call the regulator's dilemma - how to get in the way of poor practice, promote better research culture, but at the same time get out of the way of good practice. Regulators of the past would perhaps have played an enforcing role - hard regulation, if you like. They codify pretty specific requirements and expectations in policies and guidance and application forms. And that approach may well be OK at preventing truly terrible practice, but it's less clear how it promotes a better research culture and it definitely doesn't get out of the way of good research practice. More recently, regulators have been looking to set values or mission-driven expectations, so soft regulation, if you like. They see their role not just as enforcing, but facilitating - make good practice possible, make it easy, the norm, and rewarding, before we get anywhere near making it unavoidable through enforcement and sanctions. We do that through a variety of means such as using our resources, our influence, in the broader system and our convening power to help the research community deliver not only good research but good research done in a good way through a research culture, which both society and individual researchers can benefit from and the hope is that that more empathic and systems approach has fewer unintended consequences, is less prone to the effects of perverse metrics, better reflects the complex research landscape and promotes the right sort of research and workplace culture. So that's more generally about how regulators are part of the scaffolding that creates research culture.
Secondly, I want to talk a little bit about us in terms of our ways of working. Like most other organisations over the last year we've obviously been doing most of our work online and that includes the parts of the regulatory system we run, such as research ethics committees. We've learnt a lot in that process of experimenting with new approaches, both positive and negative. So virtual meetings, online meetings, paperless offices, obviously have allowed us to reduce travel. Not only to keep it going, but have made some of our work much more inclusive, much faster, and much more efficient and better for the environment than we were able to do before. We've been able to involve more people from different communities that would not have been able to engage in the previous system. It has forced us to, in a way, trust our teams, manage them based on their performance, not their presence within the office, and that has led to really good improvements within kind of workplace culture. It has promoted community spirit - now that, obviously, has been tense at times across the nation, but we have pulled together, both professional and societal, and we've worked together, we've cared about each other and we've valued each other in that process. We've innovated in many different ways about the ways we've done things without dropping the bar because we've understood that whilst process is important, we can't just stick to process for process' sake. We're better relied on expert judgement, guided by a common purpose, to deliver a common goal without lowering quality. Things that we thought were impossible before have worked OK.
So going forward, we'll want to maintain many of those positives, but also to mitigate some of the negatives. So the things that we're starting to think about is if we continue in a workforce which is much more distributed, much more hybrid, how do we maintain social cohesion, social connection, collaborative working, strategic working and learning and developing together? Thank you.
JAMES: Excellent, thank you, Matt, very much, that's great. So we've had four really good contributions there to get us going. We're going to move now into questions and discussion with them and with all of you. We've already got a good array of questions coming in, but do keep them flowing, so feel free to add more. Can I invite all the panellists to come back in, as it were, and turn their cameras on and join and we will kick off.
I'll sort of mention if particular questions are directed at one or other of you, but otherwise we'll sort of take a range of views. So we've had a couple of linked ones coming in, partly prompted, I think, Candy, by your comments about mindset. Interesting question - do you think we should sort of expand that conversation about mindset, as it were, to, you know, beyond early career researchers but also to include those at different levels in the system, you know, managers and more experienced researchers? And linked to that, there's another one here, I'm just going to mix up with it - how can we open up conversations among ECRs, senior academics, research support folks, funders, policymakers - there's lots of stakeholders involved, how can we truly understand what each expects and needs? So I guess at the heart of this it's about, you know, different perspectives on the problem, as it were, and I guess different capacity to tackle it, as it were, in terms of the agency that different people have within the system. So I'll start with you, Candy, but obviously others can play in on this, too.
CANDY: Well, I think - I think when I was asked this question, one of the things that I was worried about, that it may sort of sound - the question almost puts the onus on early career researchers that perhaps - you know, there's less emphasis on trying to change mid-career and more senior academics. I absolutely don't want that - I don't want what I said to be taken in that way at all. We absolutely need change across the board. And I was just thinking, you know, I think as a - through my role, of course, I meet a lot of fantastic early career researchers who, you know, for example, around EDI, are really aware, really engaged and I look at some of our newer fellows who are leading on initiatives and experimenting, I guess, nationally and internationally. But sometimes I think it's - you know, as people are rightly pointing out here, it's changing mindsets, perhaps, of people who have been in the system longer and got used to the ways of thinking and working and in fact related to the EDI thing, we're working - we have a grant from the Wellcome Trust and we're currently developing an EDI toolkit for research leaders, so finding out what research leaders do and don't know and thinking about what they really need to know. Again, bit of an experiment to find out whether, again, we can perhaps, you know, really start to engage research leaders more in that sort of inclusive aspect and being able to manage sort of more diverse teams. So I absolutely agree that this isn't just about, you know, changing the mindset of one group and that everyone's really valuable in these conversations.
And in terms of getting people together, you know, there seems to be a myriad of forums, you know, for getting different groups together. How we bring all that together, I think, is a real challenge. I think, you know, within an institution, you can certainly set up groups around particular issues to sort of help foster conversations and run events and things, but in terms of that co-ordinated action across the sector, I think that might be a bit more challenging.
JAMES: Great, thank you, Candy. Anjali, I don't know if you wanted to come in on that question as well, and then I have a couple in a related area, but yes, any first thoughts on that question?
ANJALI: Yes, so I think if the Research on Research Institute, for example, design an experiment, we should be mindful within that to have it kind of as a role model experiment. So, for example, my institution at Oxford, we're thinking that if we're going to try and change research culture, it should be co-led by someone really senior in the university with someone else who might, in the traditional sense, be more junior but actually if it's co-led, obviously, by different stakeholders and your steering committee is diverse and has voices around the table that wouldn't traditionally be on a steering committee for a research project, that can set a really good tone for saying, "We're really intent on changing things, and not working with the established structures and hierarchy, we're going to do this differently and we're going to do the best we can to see what worked and what didn't work as we go along that path".
JAMES: Great, thank you. So we've had a couple of questions pushing at a difficult area, but a very important area - I guess the sort of risks involved in sometimes standing up or speaking out on these kinds of agendas. So let me just roll, again, two questions together that I think are closely linked. Alina Christina asking, how do we make sure early career researchers who speak up to pursue change in research culture aren't then driven out of academia as a punishment for rocking the boat? For example, by being told that they're not strong enough for this sort of career or getting a reputation as a trouble-maker. And another question, an anonymous question, how can each of the different people involved feel confident enough to call out the issues, voice their opinions, without worrying about what happens next? And I think, you know, this is an important and difficult area. I wonder, Diego, I mean Wellcome, obviously, are sort of raising expectations in a way that we all welcome in this arena but what are we doing about potentially, you know, raising the engagement particularly of our early career research colleagues and then finding there are not sufficient structures in place to support them in pushing at these questions - any thoughts?
DIEGO: Yes, thanks, James. So I think this is quite tricky and where you might want to think about the different career stages within research and where you might want to focus the most influence or mindset shift that Candy was mentioning about. So I would argue that, you know, funders and professional bodies and societies should be having these conversations with senior leaders and sort of raising awareness about issues that early career researchers might be facing and the importance of, maybe, having working conversations or a code of conduct in your particular institution or environment, and in that way you're kind of priming those senior leaders and people that are running research groups to be ready to have those conversations. I think funders themselves can do a lot more, as far as support goes, after you've gotten an award to point people to the right direction, to our assessment process, even maybe try to ask about some of these behaviours, and then, you know, provide people with support, or if they don't provide sufficient responses or have no idea about it, yeah, I would say raising an awareness on a much higher level and not necessarily taking a top-down approach but targeting leaders to think about these things very seriously.
JAMES: Thanks. I mean, Candy, from a university leadership perspective, do you feel it's risky for particularly those at an earlier stage in their career to speak out on this stuff?
CANDY: Well, yes. I mean, I suppose, you know, of course there are sort of risks involved. What we want to do at Newcastle - and I was just kind of reflecting on what Diego was saying there. You know, I think I really value it when people come and challenge and tell me where things are going wrong and I think it's about, you know, really, I suppose, building that culture and that environment where people can really see that, you know, what they say is heard and really listened to and acted upon. And I've been quite inspired recently, you know, sort of conversations I saw come up in the questions as well, things around sort of psychological safety and, you know, we've been having a bit of a book club on that as well, here, with a few colleagues. But I think, you know, how we build those psychologically safe spaces where people really can, you know, bring things forward but also I think, you know, risk things, not worry about failure. But I kind of hope that people do feel that they can come and raise things. I mean, we do run events and obviously where people feel like they want to raise things anonymously, they can, but I think it's really important that if we're going to have these kinds of conversations they need to be as open as possible and it's not about, you know, feeling defensive about any of this, but it's really having those valuable conversations about what is it that we really need to change and if we can't create those environments, are we going to find it harder to move it on?
JAMES: Great. Matt, you wanted to come in on that one?
MATT: Yes, please. So building on what Candy was saying, really, I think the important thing is to have a range of opportunities for people to have these sorts of conversations because in my experience, when it often goes very wrong is when someone doesn't have enough opportunities to raise an issue, and so issues end up getting raised in the "Wrong" format or in the "Wrong" forum, and that's just an unhealthy and unhelpful experience for everyone. So, for example, across an organisation, you get everything from kind of formal kind of complaints, protection of whistle-blowers, through kind of things like reverse mentoring, down to just good supervisory practice and training for managers and supervisors to know how to have these sorts of conversations in everyday interactions within their team, so it does become the normal. You know, if you try to have the big, really challenging conversations in everyday environments or in all staff meetings, it just doesn't work. You need different mechanisms within an institution. And if you have enough of those mechanisms and they're trusted by everyone, then I think that reinforces the right sort of behaviours and values, which will then translate into changes in both workplace and research culture.
JAMES: Great, thanks, Matt. While I've got you, Matt, I've got another one here which I will start you on and then again maybe come to others. A very good question from Rosalind that certainly worries me in these debates. How do we avoid good research culture or good workplace culture becoming a simplified or sort of reduced set of targets which provide a newer, fresh arena for competition between institutions and individuals? You know, there's always a tendency - the sort of bureaucrat logic that kicks in, you change the system and try and introduce new incentives and then some of the same pressures creep in around those new objectives. I just wonder, I mean, again, how - sitting at the top of a big organisation, as it were, how do you avoid those sort of pitfalls or at least adapt to cope with them?
MATT: So it's a really good question. The key thing is to forget the myth that if you can't measure it, it doesn't matter. We need to just forget that from the outset. There are some things which matter that you can measure, and that's fine, but you use those kind of approaches, you know, very, very carefully. So the tendency where we say that this is important, therefore we're going to put metrics around it, is where I think we often go wrong. So what is the alternative? The alternative is to try to instil within an organisation a common set of values and principles, a way to think about your day-to-day conduct and your work, rather than, you know, a series of checklists and metrics that you have to kind of adhere to. And that's kind of what I was trying to get at earlier, where I've seen a shift in authorities in the system, if you like, whether that's funders or regulators, where they're trying to do more values-based, mission-based kind of regulation, rather than, "Here's a form you have to fill out and here is a checklist you have to follow," so, for example, the HRA does a lot of work trying to promote public involvement and patient involvement in research or promote research transparency and it tries not to do that by coming up with a checklist that people have then got to tick against and when it goes wrong and rates drop, then our intervention in the system is much more kind of nuanced and facilitative and convening and supportive, rather than kind of berating the research community.
So if I can just have a minute to give you an example. When COVID kicked in we had a lot of research applications, obviously, around COVID research - really, really important research that, had it been delayed, you know, quite literally it would have cost thousands of lives. What we noticed was that the rates of public involvement in that research just dropped to about 20%. So instead of stopping the research, instead of berating the research community, we said, "Look, this is still important, it's still expected, but we get it, it's difficult to do in this environment". So what we did was we set up a matching service where we said that if you're struggling to get meaningful public involvement in your research, we'll put you in contact with patient and public groups who can help you within the kind of timelines which we're working to here. But the alternative would have been to have stopped that research and it would have caused a lot of harm. So instead of coming at it with a metric or a checklist or enforcement approach, we came at it with a, "We want to help you solve this problem" and I think that works across the system, as well, if we see this more about values and mission, rather than kind of metrics and measures.
JAMES: Great, thanks, Matt, very much. Candy, you wanted to come in on that one?
CANDY: Well, I dangerously want to come in on it, I'm not sure whether I should!
JAMES: No, do, do!
CANDY: Well, because it is a really interesting question that you raise, James, because of course, you know, people - when we think about what is it that we think a thriving research culture looks like and how do we know when we get there, and, you know, of course people will be asking me, at some point down the line, what have we changed, what have achieved and you want some kind of measures of that. So I suppose we are perhaps a bit experimental at Newcastle and we're actually going to be doing a piece of work with Lizzie Gadd from the NORMS working group to see whether we can develop - again starting very much with what we value in our research environments but seeing if we can get through to some measures that are really meaningful, that obviously aren't just - we don't want them to be just tick boxes and now I've listened to Matt, I wonder whether this might be a bit more of a challenge than I originally thought, but I think it's something that we're certainly going to explore, yes.
JAMES: Great, thank you. So we've had a couple of questions about sort of experimentation, which we touched on, but perhaps haven't talked about enough. One question here has just come in, "Can we have an example or two of what you consider to be experimental approaches to improving research culture? What kind of things did you learn from those?" And somewhat related, "ED&I can only be achieved with a systems approach and a symbiosis of top-down/bottom-up connected approaches - would the panel address this"?
So I guess getting into some of the detail of methods and techniques here. Anjali or Diego, any thoughts on, I guess, examples of where you think this is happening well, where it could happen better? Anjali first?
ANJALI: I almost think this is a question for you, James, with your link at the Research on Research Institute! But I'm going to talk about a couple of things that maybe you can expand on, that just tickled my fancy when I read about them. The first was I believe that RoRI, the Research on Research Institute, are looking at a digital approach to randomly selecting which grants get funded because at the moment we know that people from under-represented groups are less likely to get fellowships, for example, which touches on the EDI example, and I've heard of another experiment where it might be that a publisher randomly allocates the position of authorship on a paper, or you do that - I think there's a major funder, it might be Wellcome and someone will chip in if it is, about having a new kind of CV that's more narrative-based about what the person contributed, rather than whether they were the first author or the last author. So I'm quite tickled by these ideas. I'm not sure where they're at or whether they're working well or not.
JAMES: Well I can certainly say a bit, I don't want to hijack too much talking about RoRI, but Diego, maybe you can pick up on the narrative CV because that is something that Wellcome has been supportive of and other experiments that you are doing as a funder and then maybe I will just say a line or two on RoRI as well.
DIEGO: Sure, so the resume for researchers which you are talking about, Anjali, was developed at the Royal Society and UKRI just committed to using it, which is really great. I think the tool is great for understanding people's contributions to research. I'm not sure I'll talk about the experimental approach that you are hinting at, James, but I can kind of tie back to the last question where we were talking about making sure things don't come as tick box exercises and the current governance approach to how decisions are made might result in this, and one thing that I've seen - and I'm going to speak through our lens of the Culture Campaign - is how powerful it is to take the views and voices of many different people in the sector and use that to pressure the people at the top to change their approaches. Essentially, in the culture programmes, you're looking at human experience and so asking people about their experience is probably a really great way to understand if you're doing well or not and if you can design systems where that experience is feeding into how the system is designed very regularly. You might be able to change course as you're going along, which could be a really good thing, but that also relies on systems to be agile and moveable which sometimes we know they're not, but that kind of experimentation would be really nice to see in the future.
JAMES: Great, thank you. I'll say just a line, as Anjali has asked me to, about RoRI's work in this area. I guess, to preface it, I mean I think it's remarkable to me and one of the reasons we set the Research on Research Institute up, how little proper, robust trialling and experimentation there is in the research funding system, in that we tend to lurch from one approach to the next, you know, new institutions, new funding agencies, a big debate now right here in the UK, without properly understanding what's working and not working within the systems that we have. So that is, I guess, a preface to it. But when it comes to things like randomisation, which you mentioned, Anjali, yes, there are some very interesting experiments under way among funders around the world looking at the possibilities of those approaches and it's best thought of as sort of introducing randomisation at particular points in the system. So you're not throwing the whole - sort of junking peer review and funding through a pure lottery mechanism, but you are introducing lottery elements at some of pinch points in the system where, as we know well, both from observation and other empirical work, you know, there's potential for bias, discrimination, in various ways, or for very arbitrary decisions to be made. So, you know, for example, in a panel that's reviewing a load of applications, you know, they may agree quite easily on the very best, they may agree quite easily on the worst, there will then be this grey zone in the middle or upper middle of potentially fundable work and all sorts of other factors can kick in that influence what does and doesn't get funded at that point, and so some of these funders, the Volkswagen Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Austrian Science Fund to name but three are saying, OK, what happens if we introduce randomisation at that point. Will we see a different distribution of funding which potentially does disrupt or reallocate funds in a way that's different to traditional patterns? It's all quite early days, I should say, with all of this, and you know, the evidence is still emergent, rather than in any sense definitive. I hope we can do more of this and I hope we can do more of this in the UK system as well, because I think at a time when there's lots of sort of talk of, you know, the problems of bureaucracy in research funding here and in other countries, this kind of more rigorous investigation of what is working and what could be done differently is quite important.
So advert over, that's what we're doing! Let me come back to the questions! We've got lots more in. Let me... Umm. We have a couple together here. Um... Sorry, I've got the wrong bit here. Yes, so one that has just come in now, again, I mean, any of you might want to come in here - how can we continue to improve a research culture in the context of external factors that we can't control? So, you know, publish or perish, and other things in the system that - it is one of these complex problems, isn't it, as the other question about the sort of complex systems implied, in that all these bits of the system are linked, and you can push at one bit but it's very hard when the other bits aren't all in line. So how do we move forward? A similar question has just come into panellists here - the role for publishers in this alongside researchers and other institution funders. Who would like to have a go at that? Matt, you're looking...
MATT: Yes, so the answer is to whether publishers and others should be involved in this is obviously - is obviously a yes. I think there's something about what an individual - what individual agency a researcher in the system has against those kind of big systemic factors and we touched earlier on particularly the implications for, for example, an early career researcher, or a researcher from kind of a community which is already - where the system is already tilted away from them, that it is impossible for them to take a stance and say, "I am not going to follow the rules and publish my papers and chase high-impact publications on principle". Unfortunately, I just don't think that's a realistic situation at the moment for them. The only way that can happen is through the support of their institutions and leadership to start to think about how can we create a space whereby at least locally - and the problem is obviously that research is a global competitive field - but at least locally we can support researchers and research groups and do things which, without that support, would just be - the odds would just be stacked against them from remaining successful in that field whilst others focus on the rest of the system. An individual early career researcher cannot fix the publishing, or the way in which we kind of assess research globally, let alone in a country. So what is it that we can do within an institution to support them to do the best you can do with the agency available to you, whilst others look after and focus on the rest of the system.
JAMES: Thanks, Matt, that's great. So just a couple more questions coming in about, I guess, specific blockages in the system, or things that could be improved. Andrew asks, in the Reimagine Research Cafe we talked about people giving up on a career research in science and he put a link in the question. Diego, I'll going to come to you first on this Wellcome could act directly on this problem, and I know this is a hot topic inside Wellcome. But can you say maybe a little bit more about how in the heart of your own operations, as a funder, you're sort of taking the larger commitments to rethinking research culture and putting them through your own systems and review processes, et cetera, if that's something you could just say a bit about? We've lost your sound, Diego, I think, or I have. No, I don't think we're getting you, Diego. Candy, or Matt, any thoughts on that question about how we could reform review processes? In that they can become real stumbling blocks for people in terms of the progression of their career?
CANDY: I think this is a really hard one and I was Diego's sound was going to come back! But it's very much aimed at him - come, Diego, you can do this! I mean, I think this is, you know - I suppose we've been - or a lot of my focus since coming into role has really been about sort of improving sort of the research environment rather than looking at the research practice end of that and we're starting to sort of build that in as we build the systems and, I suppose, the processes by which we're going to work. So I'm not sure I can usefully sort of add to this. It's not an active debate that I've really, really involved in.
JAMES: I'll come back to Diego.
DIEGO: Any joy?
CANDY: Yes, a little!
DIEGO: You can hear me? Sorry, yes, so essentially how can we change the review process from a funder to incentivise some of these behaviours. And then kind of what I hinted at when I started off is you don't really ask about the things that might contribute to positive research culture and our grant applications, so questions like, "How have you contributed to the development of others," right? Not only do I want to hear about your shiny publications and all the code that you've put up, but how have you helped trainees do this? We really shy away from asking about previous trainees' experiences in your lab. So you tell me you are an amazing leading, you have this amazing publication record, you've done all these amazing things. So maybe if you tell motor you are an amazing leader maybe I should ask about that experience from people who have been in your lab. And still even though Wellcome is signed up to things like DORA, it's like, we still have a really hard time influencing people to live up to those principles, right? We rely on the research community to embody some of the principles that we want to move forward with and it can be tricky, because, you know, sometimes you want that technical expertise and sort of the insight from someone but they may not necessarily agree with the other research-adjacent things in their mind that might be appropriate to fund an application. It's a really tricky position to be in but I think Wellcome is moving into a better direction for being a bit firmer about the goals that we have as a funder, and then how we actually implement that, should we change the strategy.
JAMES: Yes, it definitely feels like there's a journey that has been under way for a while that's picking up pace in terms of Wellcome's response. I'm going to come now with a final question to the whole panel. Just a couple of commenty-questions that have come in in the last few minutes in response to our previous discussion on experiments. Benedict says, "I'm a PI who served on grant selection panels and would strongly support introducing a lottery systems for grants in the grey area, I'm interested to know if Wellcome or UKRI are considering that". My quick answer to that would be, yes, I think they both are, but neither has, as yet, committed to trialling it. And another person says grants and fellowships already feels like a lottery - I think many of us would nod at that - and perhaps formalising it as such could be an interesting disruptor. Yes, that's a fair argument. I mean lotteries aren't a panacea by any stretch, but they are one of a range of things we could adopt. Right we will come to the panel for a final question in the last five minutes. I will come to you each in turn. What is the one action that you would like to see the sector adopt tomorrow to improve research culture? And I'm going to start, Anjali, with you - sorry to put you on the spot!
ANJALI: OK. I think it would be for everyone to acknowledge that everyone needs to take some action, no matter which stakeholder group they are with or where they are in the hierarchy. This is a big issue and everybody needs to take action and that action shouldn't continuously be, "Let's get more data". It's time to start doing things at whatever level we are at.
JAMES: Great. Candy? Your one action?
CANDY: OK, well mine actually ties into the question which I now understand which you were asking! Sorry, I thought you were asking about publication and peer review, which is a very fast-moving field. But I think for me it is very much around, you know, thinking about and changing the way we evaluate research and researchers. So if there was anything, then I would like to see excellence being defined in much broader term and it's not about the research we do but how we do it, and like Diego says, just more emphasis I think on the impact that individuals have on the wider sector and people are really rewarded for their leadership and developing the careers of others.
JAMES: Great, and Diego?
DIEGO: So, as we kind of hinted at, it feels like every part of the sector is in gridlock at the moment and no-one is really making a first move with things. So I'd argue that it would be great to see the sector co-ordinated a concerted shift for everybody to move at once or feel like they're moving at once. Obviously keeping in mind we want to listen to all the different parts of the sector. And the second one would be, when people do move, maybe like Wellcome might do in the future, please come along, it's going to be great!
JAMES: Excellent. And finally, Matt?
MATT: Thanks. So a couple of points. One kind of big and difficult to achieve and which I think is around, as Diego was saying, it's about the entire sector co-ordinating to address this. We're talking about kind of culture and that is a systems-level problem and I think the system has to work together in nuanced ways and sophisticated ways to address that. So that is a very big kind of ambition for the future. In terms of something that we could actually do tomorrow individually, then one of the things that certainly I've found very valuable in my own kind of professional life is reverse mentoring. So reaching out and speaking to and learning from the people within our system, within our teams, who otherwise are poorly represented or don't have a loud voice around leadership tables or any level of the organisation. I will caveat with saying that the problem with that is it puts a lot of burden on the very people that, you know, are already disadvantaged in the system to try and fix the system or help the system, but if there are other ways of doing that where we can learn more widely from people in the system what it really feels like, what they're experiencing, then I think that's something that we could do tomorrow and is really powerful.
JAMES: Excellent, thank you, all, for those parting thoughts. With one minute to go we're going to draw things to a close. Thanks, everyone, for taking part. A really rich set of questions and comments and we'll be picking all of those up in the follow-up from today and from this week as a whole. But let me just end by thanking, again, in particular our four speakers - Anjali Shah, Candy Rowe, Diego Baptista, Matt Westmore and also a big thanks to our interpreters, Peter, who is still there doing a sterling job, and his colleague. Thanks for taking part and I hope you will carry on and enjoy more of what this week has to offer. Thank you.
In this live workshop at our Reimagine Research Culture Festival, panellists shared the experimental approaches that are helping to continually improve culture.
- Chair: James Wilsdon, University of Sheffield
- Anjali Shah, UK Research Staff Association
- Candy Rowe, Newcastle University
- Diego Baptista, Wellcome
- Matthew Westmore, Health Research Authority.