How can we improve research culture?

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Research Culture | Research Consulting

During the last year, we’ve seen a number of enquiries from universities on how we can help them address the complex and multi-faceted problem of improving of research culture.

Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated.
The Royal Society

The drivers for this emerge from a growing number of critical reports and evidence on this issue, notably the 2020 report from Wellcome based on extensive surveys and interviews with researchers on their experiences. Other studies have pointed to the lack of diversity in research careers, notably the work by Advance HE for UKRI and by the Royal Society of Chemistry, and during 2022 this was an area of scrutiny for the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. In December 2021 Research England announced significant funding allocations to institutions in England to address research culture, funding that has sustained into 2022/23.

In recent months, we have worked with three different universities as they look to develop understanding of how their own staff and students experience their research culture and look to identify improvement actions. Through interviews and focus groups we engaged almost 200 individuals including academics, researchers, support staff, technical staff, doctoral students, and undergraduates.

One of the challenges for institutions is the complexity of the elements that combine to create the culture within their organisation, groups and staff, including:

  • how national assessment and competition for funding drives practices that directly affect research culture;
  • how time for research is allocated and supported, against the competing demands of teaching and administrative work;
  • the assessment of individual researcher performance and their overall contribution; and
  • the competitive landscape for talent, alongside project-based funding, and how this supports or limits diversity in research careers from PGR study onwards.

It is vital that we have a healthy research culture at our universities if we are to create the best conditions for research to thrive, enhance our body of knowledge, increase the attractiveness of professional research communities and make the optimum positive contribution to society.

From our own observations of the landscape there is no single or easy solution to this, but the way forward is likely to lean heavily on:

  • Dealing promptly, firmly and decisively with the incidences of bad management and supervisory behaviours evident in many of the shared and reported testimonies, recognising the significant power imbalances that exist for those in early stages of research careers.
  • As a sector, getting better at using, sharing and learning from evaluation of schemes and interventions. A notable gap consistently observed in reports including the recent national review of concordats, the UKRI review of EDI and in areas like support for mental health.
  • Greater emphasis on research teams and their overall delivery, with the contribution of individuals assessed, recognised and valued in this context.
  • Understanding and addressing how the ‘system’ supports (or fails to support) diversity in the range of individuals attracted to research careers, within and beyond higher education. The recent work by the Royal Society of Chemistry is notable here and sits within a much wider body of recent evidence that illustrates the problem, but is less clear on the interventions needed to address it.

Here at Research Consulting, we have had the benefit of working with a number of universities to help them ‘take the temperature’ of their culture. We know that there are certain issues that are common to all but there will always be different manifestations of those issues and there are things that individual organisations can do to positively influence culture even within a wider environment where many people might be feeling over-worked and over-stretched.

If we can help your organisation assess its own research culture and offer steps for improvement, then please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.

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