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Research culture… be part of the solution

Fiona McPhail, EBI Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Champion

Fiona McPhail, Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Diversity and Inclusion Champion

2017 Wellcome Trust logo black

22 January 2020

Last week Wellcome released findings from a significant piece of work undertaken to assess research culture. Through a combination of focus groups and an online questionnaire, Wellcome has gathered feedback from over 4,000 researchers in order to better understand the culture to enable targeted interventions. Here, our Diversity and Inclusion Champion, Fiona McPhail, talks us through some of the shocking findings and how we can be part of the solution.

What have they found?

Positively, researchers are overwhelmingly passionate about their work and proud to be part of the research community. Many view research as a vocation and not a job and most researchers feel that high quality outputs are being produced. A collaborative, inclusive, supportive and creative culture is highly valued, as is time to focus on research priorities within the context of transparent leadership and a safe and secure work environment.

However, the overall picture is not rosy, with a poor research culture leading to stress, anxiety, mental health problems, strain on personal relationships and a sense of isolation and loneliness at work. Not surprisingly, there were serious concerns about the culture and the sustainability of current approaches. Wellcome’s Director, Jeremy Farrar’s response to the outcomes was that some results where ‘shocking’ and that ‘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.’

So, what was ‘shocking’?

When asked to describe the research culture 55% used words which were negative, 33% positive and 12% neutral. Ranging from collaborative and supportive in the positive range through to insecure, competitive, pressured, elitist, biased and toxic in the negative ranges. Asked about their career prospects in research, only 31% of early career researchers felt satisfied with their career prospects, compared to 59% of late stage researchers.

Of those with responsibility for managing others, 80% of respondents felt that they had the confidence and skills to support others and their professional development, although 42% responded that they have received no training. Of those managed, just 49% had had a formal appraisal, 44% had had a conversation about career aspirations and 44% felt that they had received expert advice. Only 11% had been invited to give feedback on their manager’s management – perhaps explaining the disparity between perceptions.

Of considerable concern were ‘workplace dynamics’ including unhealthy, damaging social dynamics and harmful behaviour, often related to failings of management and leadership. Examples included power imbalances and exploitation, bullying and harassment, and a sense of isolation. 43% of researchers have experienced bullying or harassment and 61% have witnessed it.

These figures were higher for those who identified as disabled and for women. 29% of BAME respondents reported experiencing race or ethnicity related discrimination or harassment. Current practices and policies were felt not to be conducive to reporting and it would take extreme behaviour for individuals to stand up and report. Reasons include worry about being identified by senior staff as ‘trouble-makers’; not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ or ‘put your (sic) head above the parapet’ due to potential career implications.

The research culture overall, including expectations, metrics and performance indicators, were also felt to have a negative impact on research quality, individuals and society.

So, what are the solutions?

The good news is that 84% of researchers are proud to work in research. However, only 29% feel secure in pursuing this career. It's clear it's time to reimagine research.

Potential solutions include changes to funding structures; more support for early career researchers; re-thinking funding criteria and incentives; training to help researchers promote good culture through managing and mentoring; identification of bad behaviour in order to deter it; ways to raise concerns without fear of reprisal and prejudice; and promoting good practice.

Much has already been done at the University of Bristol to address the research culture, with Elizabeth Blackwell Institute committed to identifying barriers and championing and challenging equality, diversity and inclusion within health and biomedical research communities. Faculty and School surveys have played an important part in identifying areas where further focus is required, and the evidence gathered by Wellcome can help us in finding our own solutions to on-going, sector wide issues.

Help reimagine research

Wellcome is developing a Toolkit for use with research staff at different levels. Its purpose to provide feedback on potential solutions to inform sector responses. The toolkit has been piloted here at Bristol by BioChemistry. The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute will be represented as part of a wider University of Bristol presence, at one of the roadshows that Wellcome is hosting in Cardiff on 26 February.

Elizabeth Blackwell Institute are undertaking an equality audit of own processes for administering funding and offer equality and diversity sessions, currently on monitoring and interpretation of data from an equality perspective. The University of Bristol has also reviewed its EDI delivery plan.

Get involved...join the Inclusion Forum

Bringing together University of Bristol staff with a responsibility for/interest in Diversity and Inclusion, to enable communication on key issues and sharing of good practice across schools and departments. This Forum meets every four months and information is regularly sent out about events and activities. Staff wishing to join on behalf of their division/department should seek agreement from their line manager and email

Further information

Read our news story on the report

More about the Reimaging Research from Wellcome

Download the full Wellcome report

Wellcome is not alone in addressing these issues. The UKRI is also focussing on Equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation and on harassment and bullying.

Information and reseources from the University of Bristol Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team

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