The Wellcome survey of 4,000 researchers, in the UK and globally, exposes the stark pressures faced by many who work in research. It found that despite a majority agreeing they are proud to work in research, four out of five researchers believe high levels of competition are creating unkind or aggressive working conditions and nearly half feel pressured into working long hours.
Additionally, nearly two-thirds of respondents had witnessed bullying or harassment, and just one in three feel comfortable in speaking up about this behaviour, with many doubting whether appropriate action would be taken.
In September 2019, Wellcome launched an initiative to reimagine research and improve the culture for all. Current practices prioritise outputs at all costs, and this is damaging people’s wellbeing and undermining the quality of research itself.
The survey was designed to hear experiences from across the research community and take the first step to inform our vision for how we can build a creative, inclusive and honest research culture.
Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, said:
"These results paint a shocking portrait of the research environment – and one we must all help change. A poor research culture ultimately leads to poor research. The pressures of working in research must be recognised and acted upon by all, from funders, to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions.
"As a funder, we understand that our own approach has played a role, placing focus and reward on output at the expense of how research is achieved. We’re committed to changing this, to foster a creative, supportive, and inclusive research environment. These changes won’t happen overnight but by working with the scientific community, and making it safe for people to speak out, we can set ambitious goals to build a better research culture and as a result more impactful research."
The survey, designed in collaboration with Shift Learning(opens in a new tab), followed in-depth interviews with more than 90 researchers along with focus groups. Together, the research sought to reveal the perspectives and experiences from across the research community. The respondents were self-selecting and are not necessarily representative of the general researcher population but among the key findings were:
Beth Thompson, Research Culture lead at Wellcome, said:
"This report reveals researchers are being asked to deliver under an increasingly intense amount of pressure, providing a damning assessment on the research system and the working environment. For so many to consider working in research as a vocation yet also feeling insecure in pursuing a research career is a stark call to action to create a more creative, honest and inclusive research culture.
"Until we do this, researcher wellbeing and the quality of research will suffer, and we won’t make the most of the diverse talent on offer. We need a fundamental reframing of our redefinition of excellence – it should not just be what we do, but how we do it."
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Glasgow, said:
"These results highlight the challenge we all face in developing our research culture. Our universities, funders and professional societies must all work together to create a research culture that is supportive and that will sustain our talented research community as they address the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
"We should remember that a better culture is not an alternative to research quality; rather, culture is the route to achieving excellence in a collaboration-rich, challenge-led world."
The next steps of Wellcome’s Research Culture work include a series of ‘town hall’ meetings at universities across the UK to discuss the issues raised in the survey.
A toolkit will also be available for researchers to hold their own discussions.
In March, Wellcome will bring together the ideas and visions generated from these sessions at the ‘Reimagine Research’ summit, to set out a pathway to improving research culture.
The research consisted of 94 individual UK-based in-depth interviews, four co-creation workshops held in the UK, each involving nine researchers and then an online survey.
4,267 researchers completed the online survey to build on findings from the previous stages. Respondents were self-selecting. The survey was open worldwide and the response breakdown is as follows:
Full details of the methodology and respondents are available in the report