I’m a postdoctoral research fellow at Heart n Soul at The Hub, a research project that involves collaborations between artists and researchers – with and without learning disabilities. We’re co-researchers, and we’re discovering new and exciting ways of working and doing research. Our project explores the value of difference and aims to challenge public understanding of learning disabilities.
We're funded through The Hub Award, and have a two-year residency at Wellcome Collection.
A range of perspectives
In Wellcome’s recent research culture survey, 61% said that their working environment promoted a collaborative culture, and I’m really proud to feel that way too.
At Heart n Soul at The Hub, we’re open to ideas that come from outside of academic research, and to new ways of working. Our entire research process is informed by lived experience, and by involving those who have been labelled as having reduced cognitive ability or unable to independently perform daily life activities. We come to research with a diversity of thought and experiences that help us to tackle issues in an interesting and potentially more impactful way. We believe that anybody can contribute, and this doesn’t happen very often in academia.
Our co-researchers recently designed an interactive online survey to find out what people think of learning disability. There are different audiovisual options for questions and responses – including text, image, audio and video – which means that anyone can take part. You can find out more about what we learned in our paper on the co-design process.
Creativity is one of the most commonly cited features of an ideal research culture, but Wellcome’s survey results show that 75% of researchers believe it's being stifled.
Creativity, when defined as having freedom to experiment, is intrinsic to science and research. But science and research don't handle uncertainty very well. In the research world, you always need to know what you’re doing and how, and be able to defend your approaches and methods. This means that creativity is often bound by rigid borders – it’s like saying to somebody you can fly if you want, but only to the moon, no further than that, it’s too risky.
The truth is that many ideas and processes in science are born quite organically, as a result of talking to one another, through collaborative efforts and the flexibility to have an open mind.
We need to value the process and provide space to talk. Examples of creativity and motivation need to be better recognised. Imagine a grant application where you could say how you motivated someone on your team or got someone to reach their full potential. This would create a healthier research culture.
To help cultivate creativity, we’ve redesigned elements of the physical Hub space at Wellcome Collection. It’s a fantastic open space, and we want people to feel welcome, safe and relaxed. We provide different seating options (bean bags, rocking chairs etc) and lighting options, as well as a chill out room for anyone who wants to take time out in a calming environment.
We’ve also worked with meeting facilitators to help us run our meetings more creatively, for example by using writing, drawing, singing and performing, and with artists to explore how we can produce creative research outputs, such as films and drawings.
The glorification of intelligence
Any type of bullying and harassment is very sad and I was sorry to see that 61% of researchers in the survey said they’d seen bullying or harassment and 43% have experienced it themselves. In some ways I think this is an effect of the glorification of a specific type of intelligence and, at times, a very narrow way of thinking within academic disciplines which is intolerant of difference.
Whenever I give a presentation or say something at a conference I try to be myself, but I always worry about how I’ll be received by the academic community. I feel the need to say something smart, look smart, put on a mask and show a certain kind of intelligence. I feel that I can’t always present my true self and how passionate I am about my research because of the narrow parameters by which researchers are often judged and rewarded.
There’s a lack of diversity within research teams, which I believe is in part because there’s such a high rate of competition. I’ve seen articles on social media that tell early career researchers to shift their focus from developing research-related skills to developing more transferable skills that they can apply on the job, outside of academia. But this doesn’t solve the problem – many of us are passionate and committed individuals who want to make the world a better place through academic research.
It means that research loses out each year, both in terms of people and of ideas. Providing more sustainable research funding opportunities for early career researchers is key, and I believe it would lead to a more diverse and healthier research culture.
To get an idea of how we work at Heart n Soul at The Hub you can follow our journey on our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're working on a similar project and would like to discuss our work. I look forward to seeing other ideas for change on Wellcome’s online research culture forum.