University of Southampton

At a recent breakfast meeting on Highfield campus, I had an interesting discussion with Associate Deans (Research) from across the University and our Vice-President for Research and Enterprise, Professor Mark Spearing, about the research culture of the University. This was prompted by the publication last week of a report, “What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In”, summarising the findings of a study the Wellcome Trust had conducted into researchers’ experiences of research culture and their visions for the future.

In parts, the report makes shocking reading, with researchers reporting that they have real concerns about the culture of research in the UK and how sustainable it is. Their concerns include issues such as pressure to publish papers, aggressive and harmful competition, widespread concerns about job security – especially in academia – and sadly, many reported having experienced exploitation, discrimination, harassment and bullying. As the Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar states in the report: “[the] 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.”

What do we mean by research culture?
Culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It is critical because researchers’ experience of the culture of an organisation, determines the way their research is conducted and communicated, and influences their career choices (1).

It has been recognised that the culture in universities and research institutes in the UK is one of the reasons they are an attractive and productive place to undertake research (2). If you want excellent research, you need a positive research culture that supports all individuals involved. However, as the Wellcome report clearly demonstrates, there is much that is far from ideal in the UK research culture.

There are multiple influences on research culture ranging from national and institutional policies to the attitudes and behaviour of staff at all levels. Therefore, we all have a part to play in setting the research culture of the University, from conducting research with integrity to exhibiting collegiality and valuing the contribution of colleagues in all roles including technicians and professional services.

The evidence is clear
There is no doubt that to retain the best researchers in our University and grow and develop their academic careers, we need to support and mentor them. (3)

There are a number of ways we are already enhancing our organisational research culture, such as signing the AllTrials initiative to require public registration of our clinical trials, initiatives to more firmly embed research integrity into the heart of our institutional culture, commitment to the responsible use of research metrics, and implementation of mentoring schemes for staff and research students at all levels. However, we have much more to do.

There are many examples of initiatives that have been shown to be beneficial to research culture in organisations, such as discussing successes and failures in research openly, implementing activities to support staff wellbeing, and identifying gaps in skills and offering training. Research culture “cafés” are an excellent way to share best practice – watch this space, as the idea of holding a culture café here in Southampton is already being discussed.

While moulding the research culture is everyone’s responsibility, it is also clear that there is a major role for the research leadership of the institution to make sure we create a positive, supportive, environment in which all researchers can grow and develop. The Royal Society’s Research Culture workshop report (4), highlights the pivotal role that research leaders play in shaping research culture. Our staff are our best asset as an institution, and as research leaders we need provide an environment to support and develop them as researchers.

I would like to hear from any of our colleagues involved in research, about how we can improve our research culture and any examples of best practice. I would also like to urge anyone who may have experienced or seen any of the issues highlighted in the Wellcome Trust report, including bullying, to report it. The University has a committed team of trained Harassment Contacts. They provide a confidential service to students and staff who feel bullied or harassed.

As it is Friday, I think it is time for me to take another suggestion from the Royal Society’s research culture workshops and make my own “small but impactful way to set culture and improve morale in the workplace” by switching off the email this weekend and spending time with my children, hopefully helping to tackle the perception that only academics working ridiculously excessive hours can be successful. I urge you to do the same if you can.

References

  1. The Royal Society. https://youtu.be/mZ3bdTmjPKg
  2. Chaplin K, Price D. 7 Ways to promote better research culture. 2018 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/09/7-ways-to-promote-better-research-culture/ [last accessed 29/01/2020].
  3. Lambert WM, Wells MT, Cipriano MF, Sneva JN, Morris JA, Golightly LM: Career choices of underrepresented and female postdocs in the biomedical sciences. eLife 2020, 9:e48774. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.48774
  4. The Royal Society. Research culture embedding inclusive excellence: Insights on the future culture of research. 2017. Available from https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/Publications/2018/research-culture-workshop-report.pdf

“Research Culture: an issue of our time” by Professor John Holloway

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