Ideas to reimagine research culture: what we’ve heard at our university town halls

Last month, we published the findings of a survey into how researchers feel about the culture they work in. Now, we want to hear your ideas to reimagine research.

A woman speaks into a microphone at an event

Credit: David Sandison/Wellcome

Although our report highlighted the pride and sense of purpose that researchers feel in their work, it uncovered many underlying issues in research culture, like unhealthy competition, bullying and harassment, and poor mental health.

Through a series of town halls up and down the country, we’re hearing ideas from across the research community on how things could be improved. 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 helping us to develop a shared vision of a better working culture, which we’ll publish at our Reimagine Research Solutions Summit in March and use to hold Wellcome to account.

What have we heard so far?

We’ll be publishing the emerging themes soon, but I wanted to share three of my initial reflections from the town halls we’ve hosted so far – at Newcastle University, the University of Dundee and the University of Glasgow.

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 town halls, 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 have 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. 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.

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