Largest survey into research culture reveals high levels of stress and insecurity

Less than a third of scientists feel secure in pursuing a research career with many experiencing long hours and aggressive working conditions, according to the results of the largest survey to date into experiences of research culture.

 

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, 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:

  • 84% of researchers agreed that they were proud to work in the research community, but less than one in three felt secure pursuing a research career
  • 61% have witnessed bullying or harassment, and 43% have experienced one of these behaviours themselves, but only 37% would feel comfortable speaking out about bullying or harassment
  • just over half of the respondents had sought or had wanted to seek professional help for depression or anxiety
  • a third of full-time employed respondents reported working more than 50 hours a week
  • 79% of respondents in managerial roles enjoyed managing people, but less than half of managers surveyed said they had received training on managing people
  • 69% of respondents agreed that rigour of results was considered an important research outcome by their workplace, but one in five junior researchers and students revealed that they had felt pressured by their supervisor to produce a particular result.

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."

Next steps

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.