Ideas to reimagine research culture: what we've heard at our university townhalls

Following our survey into how researchers feel about the culture they work in, we’ve been holding townhalls up and down the country this year – in person and then via Zoom – to hear your ideas on how research culture could be improved.  

A woman speaks into a microphone at an event
Credit: David Sandison/Wellcome

Ben Bleasdale

Ben Bleasdale

Lots of you have also signed up to host Café Culture discussions, and posted your ideas for change on our online forum

Your conversations are informing Wellcome’s new strategy, and helping us to develop a shared vision of a better working culture. We’ll publish this at our online Reimagine Research Culture Festival in March 2021, and use it to hold Wellcome to account. 

What have we heard? 

The research community shares many concerns about the current state of research culture. These common themes are set out in our new townhalls report [PDF 2.79MB], which includes anonymised personal reflections from participants across the UK.  

Among the many conversations I’ve been part of during these events, three themes have resonated with me. 

The current ‘iceberg’ model of research doesn’t value teamwork

Research is a team effort. It involves joint-working between lab colleagues and collaborators, and building on the work of others.

Yet this model of research isn’t supported under the current system, where Principal Investigators are often forced to act as proxies for a joint endeavour. Assessment, promotion and publication systems are still built around the person at the tip of the iceberg, overlooking the many people hidden below the waterline.

This generates a hierarchy within the research community, and it can make technicians, professional services staff, postdocs and PhD students feel second class.

At the townhalls, participants called for better recognition of everyone’s contribution. One suggestion was that funders could clarify the different roles involved in delivering a research project during the grant assessment process, and subsequently work with organisations to make sure promotion pathways are in place to value the people occupying these roles.

We heard examples of how other organisations have made change happen. For example, the University of Dundee has broadened their annual review to celebrate the work of staff across the organisation, including those in professional services roles. This is a step towards rebuilding collegiality and the sense of shared purpose that has become increasingly scarce across the system.

Funders must build greater trust with organisations

We heard about the need for funders to work in better partnership with organisations.

Discussion repeatedly turned to the introduction of Wellcome’s bullying and harassment policy. Participants called for funders to be receptive to the real-world impact of their policies. Successfully tackling behaviours such as bullying and harassment must be a joint effort between funders and the employing organisation, so that poor practice isn’t hidden.

Achieving sustained changes to research culture will need to be collaborative rather than coercive.

The energy it takes to be a good leader isn’t being rewarded

Good leadership and management are key to building a better research culture, and yet it’s not always necessary for researchers to demonstrate these skills to get funding or get promoted. Participants suggested that funding criteria should include developing and implementing management skills.

Participants also called for new ways to get management and leadership skills to ‘stick’, once they’ve been learned. We heard about the value of learning in cohorts, where individuals can see different styles of management being used by colleagues around them.

There are many examples of initiatives which aim to build future research leaders, including the Newcastle University Academic Track (NUAcT) Fellowship scheme. This programme provides early career researchers with the stability and freedom to develop their training and build broader leadership skills, supported by an experienced mentor and dedicated staff.

Make your voice heard 

As a community, we have a chance to rebuild research culture to our own design, but everyone needs to make their voice heard. The end of the townhalls isn’t the end of the conversation. So please take a moment to share your perspectives by hosting a Café Culture discussion, or posting your ideas for change on our online forum

Our online Reimagine Research Culture Festival, from 22 to 26 March 2020, will set out positive steps for change. Register to get a first look at inspiring talks and articles, as well as exclusive access to workshops to help you take on change in your organisation. 

This article was first published on 20 February 2020.