Inside Track | Continuing the big conversation about our research culture

With the launch of our employee engagement survey, Dean for Research Culture, Professor Cat Davies, outlines how past feedback is helping shape ongoing improvements to the research culture at Leeds.

Inside Track | Continuing the big conversation about our research culture. February 2023

As a community, we define our own research culture. Academics, research and technical staff, practitioners, professional services staff, collaborators and partners, research participants, students – a range of diverse players within the University all shape the environment we work in.

Here in the Research Culture Team, we’ve been consulting with you during the past 18 months to identify our most pressing challenges. Your stories and experiences define our next steps as we move to make our research culture more inclusive, open and supportive.  

A critical piece of our consultation has been the Research Culture Insights project, using data from respondents to the 2021 Big Leeds Conversation. In collaboration with external consultancy Clever Together, we examined about 1,300 survey contributions from the University’s research community. We’re now sharing a summary of our findings. The analysis was funded by Research England’s Enhancing Research Culture scheme, designed to enable a more supportive, inclusive and collaborative research environment.

Analysing community experiences

Research Culture Insights highlights positive and negative aspects of our culture, as directly experienced by colleagues. It analyses quantitative and qualitative survey data on areas of strength relating to our five research culture themes: collegiate and supportive environment; equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in research; personal development, reward and recognition; open research and impact; and responsible research and innovation. 

Within each theme, it also identifies a range of challenges to our research culture and indicates the baseline for our initiatives. Crucially, it crowdsources ideas on current and potential interventions, so research leaders can address the research culture issues affecting us all. The report directly informs our Research Culture strategy, which we’ll launch this autumn. 

Key findings by theme

  • Collegiate and supportive environment attracted the most contributions in the survey. You agreed that one of the best things about working at the University is its people – how we collaborate and relate to each other with kindness and respect, and our ways of creating inclusive communities. Sustainable ways of working (including workloads) and the need for colleagues at all levels to live the University's values were raised as priority areas for action.
  • Personal development, reward and recognition was the second most discussed theme. As respondents, you appreciate when managers recognise our strengths, and grant us trust and autonomy. Many of your comments focused on the need for more flexible and accessible career development, fair wages and a reduction in fixed-term contracts. The need for simplified and equitable recruitment and promotion processes was also evident.
  • A total of 15% of contributions related to EDI in research. You emphasised the need for meaningful action to make the University more equitable, diverse and inclusive. For example, clearer reporting processes for colleagues witnessing discriminatory behaviours, the elimination of homogenous panels and better support for managers to deliver EDI policies.
  • Responsible research and innovation received almost 10% of contributions. You spoke passionately in favour of sustainability and strengthening a culture of innovation. You highlighted the need for greater visibility of the consequences of unprofessional conduct.
  • Open research and impact revealed the need to better reward and recognise that colleagues are here on a bigger mission – to nurture a culture of learning and do meaningful research to make the world more just and sustainable. You called for research systems and processes to be simpler and more joined-up across the University, and for more opportunities to share ideas by facilitating internal and external collaboration.

Current initiatives

By using these insights, we include everyone’s voices in our work to improve our culture. By sharing the executive summary and its implications with the research community, we openly acknowledge that we have challenges to overcome. The summary shares many of the initiatives already underway in schools and services:

  • Our Research Culture Cafes enable colleagues to share experiences and propose suggestions for change.
  • We support grant applicants to think more deeply about research culture, as part of their proposal and ongoing role in research leadership, as funders increasingly require applicants to evidence a more positive research culture.
  • We provide research grants for groups subject to negative biases, for example colleagues on the 100 Black Women Professors Now programme, as well as providing open-call internal funding.
  • We’re embedding the responsible use of metrics in our recruitment and promotion processes, including HR training.
  • We provide support for open research practices and have recently published our institutional open research statement outlining our commitments. We also make committee papers from our research culture governance groups, which are open to all.

Next steps

Through collective responsibility and our forthcoming strategy and action plan, we’re moving towards an environment in which everyone can do their most impactful and satisfying research. Leading research can only emerge from a place where colleagues are recognised for the diverse work they do, where supporting equity, diversity and inclusion is the norm, where research can be done confidently and openly, and where there is a culture of mutual support. 

There is much at stake from not supporting a positive research culture – materially, intellectually and interpersonally. As a community, our actions will ensure that our research is of the highest quality. They will put the University at the heart of a global higher education community and will demonstrate its values of inclusion, integrity, collaboration and compassion.

The Research Culture team will regularly communicate how challenges are being addressed and how your recommendations are being taken up. We will continue to monitor changes to our culture, for example through the current employee engagement survey.

Mapping the recommendations from Research Culture Insights against current initiatives reveals many opportunities for improvement. We strongly encourage colleagues to explore how these gaps can be addressed in their areas in collaboration with their teams.

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