Why we need to reimagine how we do research

The emphasis on excellence in the research system is stifling diverse thinking and positive behaviours. As a community we can rethink our approach to research culture to achieve excellence in all we do. 

Three women researchers working at the Wellcome Centre of Human Genetics in Oxford
If we aren’t working in a culture that’s creative, inclusive and honest, then we’re not getting the best research.
Credit: Wellcome

Jeremy Farrar

The UK’s research sector is powering ahead, with our world-leading universities generating knowledge and innovations that are improving lives around the world. But in the engine room of this great enterprise, warning lights are blinking on.

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. 

Research environments that work well can be inspiring, fun and rewarding places to be, whether you’re working on a life-saving vaccine or garnering new insights into human behaviours. We need to embrace that spirit.

This is in everyone’s interest because if we aren’t working in a culture that’s creative, inclusive and honest, then we’re not getting the best research.

I want Wellcome to lead the way in reimagining research and I hope that others will join us. Further inaction is inexcusable – expectations across society are already shifting but academia is lagging behind. 

We all have a stake in this debate. Today we are asking you to share your perspective by completing our survey. Whether you are engaged in research or supporting it, we urge you to share your experiences and help us to identify what needs to change and highlight what is great. 

Based on your views, we will work with the community to develop ambitious goals that describe the research culture we all want to see. We will then use these goals to hold ourselves to account and will encourage other funders to join us. 

We’ve already made improvements at Wellcome, including establishing and acting on our zero-tolerance stance to bullying and harassment, and making diversity and inclusion one of our first priority areas. But we have a long way to go. From now on we will be putting culture at the heart of everything we do, including the ongoing review of our science funding strategy. 

I’m optimistic but recognise that changing culture doesn’t happen quickly and will require commitment. I see this new approach not as a token gesture or short-term objective but as a permanent shift in our way of thinking. We know we don’t have all the answers which is why I believe it’s important to work openly with the community to change. Building a better research culture together will be our legacy. 

Our survey represents the first chance to steer that shift, so I urge you to take a few minutes to share your perspective and to encourage your colleagues to do likewise.

Research is a collective endeavour, the culture is shaped and owned by all of us. We all have a responsibility to keep the engine running smoothly. More than that, we need to keep the engine burning brightly so we continue to excite, challenge and build a better world.

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