Inside Track | Improving our research culture

In this feature, Dr Cat Davies, Dean for Research Culture, and Professor Nick Plant, DVC: Research and Innovation, explain why the research culture is broken and what we’re doing at Leeds to fix it.

Inside Track by Dr Cat Davies and Professor Nick Plant. July 2021

The University Strategic Plan – Universal Values, Global Change: 2020-2030 – sets out an ambition to place Leeds at the heart of a global network, finding innovative solutions to regional, national and global challenges.

Key to delivering this vision is a supportive, diverse, ambitious research culture and environment that will develop and support our staff to achieve their full potential, realising our shared goals.

The research sector has been slow to address the widespread failings of existing systems and practices that threaten future progress. At Leeds, we recognise the critical need for a comprehensive change in culture and the many benefits that can be realised by moving swiftly to improve our research culture and environment for all.

Is our research culture broken?

The University’s research community has benefited from being part of teams that have enjoyed considerable research success during the past few years. This success has been achieved despite having to operate in an external environment that presents increasingly high barriers to progress.

Funding, publication, career structures – all have become so competitive as to become disincentivising. The sector’s recognition of diverse skills and career trajectories, and of collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches, has progressed frustratingly slowly.

These issues risk compromising research integrity and raise uncomfortable questions about the culture in which we work.

They present specific and significant risks, including:

  • wasting resources
  • decelerating the achievement of research objectives
  • stifling creativity
  • restricting the flow of talent between academic, governmental and industrial sectors
  • demotivating and repelling gifted colleagues; and
  • blocking recruitment of excellent researchers.

Clearly, there’s much work to be done to fix this broken system, and much to gain by acting now.

Movement for change

Challenge is a catalyst for change. In response to these threats to a positive research culture, and the health and wellbeing of our researchers and research staff, examples of better practice are emerging.

Sector-wide inquiries into research culture have provided compelling data about the need for change. These include the Russell Group’s Realising Our Potential report; a research culture study from the Wellcome Trust; the Royal Society’s Changing Expectations programme; and the Dutch NWO’s Room for Everyone’s Talent report.

They’ve made actionable recommendations for improving diversity, rethinking incentives, identifying bad behaviour and promoting good practice.

The Research Excellence Framework’s (REF) recognition of positive research environments and societal impact as central components of research excellence is now established, while UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) 2019 Delivery Plan showed a shift towards positive structural and behavioural change. It’s now critical that we build upon this momentum, creating long-lasting, positive change.

The open science and open access movements have led to increased transparency, collaboration and efficiency, and their wider adoption towards a fully open research culture is now gaining traction.

Existing projects by the UK Reproducibility Network and the ReproducibiliTea journal club have set the roadmap of how we can support and incentivise open access of research materials, such as data, code and preprints, and share good practice across disciplines.

How will Leeds support a diverse and inclusive research culture?

Leeds has an important part to play in this movement for change. We’ve already made several positive steps, including our:

  • commitment to concordats in researcher development and research integrity
  • public commitment to the responsible use of metrics through the principles of the Leiden Manifesto and the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)
  • partnership with the Northern Power Inclusion Matters project
  • growing numbers of faculty Athena SWAN submissions; and
  • expansion of faculty initiatives, such as Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, across the wider institution as the Women at Leeds Network.  

We must now fuel the momentum for positive change by ensuring such best practice is well-disseminated and implemented across the University and through engagement with our external partners.

The appointment of a Dean for Research Culture, alongside the Deans for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), is an important statement of our commitment in this area. Dr Cat Davies’s academic leadership will be pivotal in ensuring Leeds is at the heart of the systematic reform needed to develop a supportive, diverse, ambitious research culture that will develop our staff to achieve their full potential.

Championing collaborative research

Solving the complex problems that face our world will require a concerted community effort. We must work across disciplines and sectors, bringing together fundamental and translational researchers with the likes of policy makers, business and third sector organisations and others to deliver long-lasting change.

Our culture must support this way of working, recognising and rewarding the many different contributions required to achieve these ambitions.

An individualistic, conservative research culture can exclude those who don’t fit the mould. For example, the current system can fail women, whose representation is overshadowed by men across career stages and traditional metrics. The situation worsens for other minority and intersectional groups.

Working with the Deans for EDI, we will take action to ensure equality in research, for example by promoting diverse role models, championing them for leadership roles and making funding more flexible.

We will challenge the established orthodoxy of individualistic competition and the traditional model of Principal Investigator (PI)-led research. We will reward research that succeeds within flatter structures, including team prizes that commend every researcher’s contribution. This will retain the motivating and accelerating effects of healthy competition between teams, while benefiting from the continuous accountability and reflection that collaborative research demands. A key extension of this will be lobbying external funders to introduce research grants for egalitarian teams.

Since many problematic practices are set during early career, a radical approach is needed to reprogramme these norms. For example, we must support an Early Career Researcher (ECR) structure that involves multiple intersecting pathways by enabling secondments or part-time work with other sectors and practices. To be successful, we must ensure our research culture and environment is sustainable for the current and next generation of researchers.

Widening our definition of research excellence

Imposing narrow success criteria threatens research integrity, as people focus solely on large-scale grant capture and unfeasibly frequent paradigm-shifting outputs. Instead, we must reward a broader range of activities that advance the field, including researchers’ contributions to business and society through novel datasets, ethical rigour, methodological platforms, therapeutic interventions, multimedia outputs and patents, for example.

In addition, we must fully recognise and value the important work colleagues undertake when they sit on influential committees, or undertake public engagement and outreach, influencing the policies, practices and perceptions that will help positively shape our future world.

For long-term change, we must motivate a healthy research culture by explicitly rewarding good practice and challenging the bad. Staff surveys and 360˚ anonymous appraisals must be given the power to highlight supportive research culture – and identify where this doesn’t exist.

We will showcase and reward good practice via communications, recognition and promotion. We will have zero tolerance of abuse in the workplace and will move quickly to manage staff involved in breaches of research integrity.

Community solution to a community problem

At Leeds, we’re rightly proud of our achievements across student education, research and innovation, and knowledge exchange. We’re also proud of the friendly and collegiate atmosphere that exists across campus.

But we also recognise there’s still much to be done to create a truly supportive, diverse culture, where we can collaborate as equals and succeed together. To realise this vision, it’s vital that the entire University community plays its part in our ambitious plans.

Please join the conversation at one of our events during the next few months (more information to follow) and help co-design our exciting new strategy that will make a positive difference to our research culture and environment.

Posted in: