We need to invest in researchers in the long-term

In which other profession do you have to fight to stay every three to five years, even near the top? I believe that research culture could greatly improve if we addressed this short-termism and job insecurity.

Two researchers carry out work in a lab

Credit: Thomas S.G. Farnetti / Wellcome

Katrina Lythgoe: 'It’s incumbent on institutions to be a bit braver, put their money behind people and provide job security.'

I’m a research group leader at Oxford’s Big Data institute. I took eight years away from research, coming back thanks to a Wellcome Research Career Re-entry Fellowship and am now a Henry Dale Fellow. Taking time away has given me perspective on other vocations, and I’ve seen how fixed-term and open-ended contracts within research – together with the pressure to bring in funding – affects researchers.

A lack of long-term thinking is flagged as a problem in Wellcome’s research culture survey, with interviewees reporting that it is a barrier to creative work, to different ways of working, and to diversity of the workforce. Addressing this must include how we fund research and give people jobs. 

Funding conditions must change

Only 29% of respondents in the survey felt secure pursuing a research career. Different people cope with that anxiety differently: certain personality types tend to thrive but we lose good people along the way. Emphasis is placed on family life as a reason for women leaving, but there are other issues that are ingrained in the system. 

One of these issues is funding conditions. I’m lucky to have had a series of fellowships from Wellcome, which have helped me get back into research after a break and maintain my research career. I’ve seen though, that for many, a nervousness about what’s next can sit alongside a fellowship.

Fellows may have families to support when their fellowship ends, while switching institutions can come with the prospect of moving partners from their jobs and children from their schools. This insecurity can take a lot of time away from doing the research, which is what we’re ultimately paid to do. From what I've heard through personal interactions, anxiety levels are noticeably less among my colleagues whose institutions have the foresight to offer them long-term positions once their fellowships come to an end. 

Some institutions want to have their cake and eat it by taking researchers for a funded period without offering them a future. I think it’s incumbent on institutions to be a bit braver, put their money behind people and provide job security.  

Being kind to researchers by making grant life-cycles longer would be quite a fundamental change in how we do things but, personally, I think this would offer greater security and challenge conventional thinking about who succeeds in research. It would mean addressing this short-termism inherent in research and letting researchers get on with their work without constant efforts to get funding. 

Successful career paths aren’t always linear

Only 40% of respondents agreed that they have flexible career options available to them. I think this is a shame, as I’ve followed a non-conventional career path and can’t emphasise how important that is for research culture.

In my time away from research, I did a masters in science communications at Imperial College London, and was an editor of a journal, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, for seven years. 

This experience taught me a lot, and I bring that back to my research. Time and people management, goal orientated working, and an added appreciation for all the good things that academia has to offer when the pressure gets myself or my colleagues down.

A particularly tangible lesson I came away with is the value of narrative, which I learned from both the masters and in my editing career. It can be undervalued, but being able to tell a good story strengthens primary research articles and reviews, blog posts and talks.

I make sure I talk about my unusual career path at the beginning of presentations at meetings – we don’t need to have travelled similar roads to have successful careers. 

A good culture encourages a broad range of skills

Current research culture supports and promotes a certain kind of researcher: the kind who has grand ideas, can put together a compelling research programme and then employs people to do the nuts and bolts.

There are many amazing researchers whose skills lie elsewhere. We have great programmers and lab bench workers, bioinformaticians and field workers, but many find it hard to stay in science as they are considered ‘serial postdocs’. They have immense skills that are often the backbone of science, yet are not rewarded as they should be. 

We need these researchers to be involved in training the next generation. I know many postdocs who are not progressing in the ways that academia defines progression. They may not want to be a group head or move ‘up the ladder’, but we need to recognise them for their skills, their ideas, and ensure they contribute to the future of research. The creation and expansion of long-term positions of equal standing to traditional lecturers and professors would be a good place to start.

I’m pleased to see these and other issues around research culture are being addressed by Wellcome’s campaign and survey and urge those with suggestions or ideas to submit to the forum that has been set up. By challenging the status quo, we could really improve the situation for current and future generations of researchers. 

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