Inside Track | Transforming our research culture

“Everyone in our research community must feel valued and empowered.”

Inside Track | Transforming our research culture. October 2023

Following our Research Culture strategy launch, Dean for Research Culture, Professor Cat Davies, outlines the important changes ahead for the University, reflects on how the strategy came into being and reveals what’s at its heart.

Following two years of intense consultation, the University has launched its strategy and action plan for improving our research culture. About a hundred colleagues who’ve been instrumental in shaping the strategy joined my team for a celebration day on 13 September to mark the occasion. Every career stage and faculty was represented, including academic, research and technical staff, as well those working in professional services – all vital members of our vibrant research community in the eyes of the new strategy.

Research culture describes the environment in which research and innovation happens, and how that environment impacts all those involved. The overarching aim of our Research Culture strategy is to enable more of our colleagues to produce leading research inclusively, equitably, openly and supportively. The resulting cultural shift will enable us to achieve several critical objectives – namely to:

  • improve the quality, impact and reach of our research
  • inspire researchers to effectively respond to current and future global challenges
  • enable researchers to develop their careers in ways that are personally and collectively fulfilling
  • deliver research-led education that will train and inspire the next generation of global citizens 
  • attract and retain the best research teams 
  • build trust within our organisation; and
  • eliminate harmful research practices, such as exclusion and duplication.

Everyone in our research community must feel valued and empowered. Only by creating an environment more conducive to supporting mutual growth, encouragement and understanding can we best address the unique global challenges facing the world today and into the future. 

Delivering culture change through clear actions

The strategy will help us focus our efforts on four strategic objectives, determined following extensive consultation across our research community. They are:

  1. We will value diverse forms of research activity.
  2. We will embed equity, diversity and inclusion principles in research practices.
  3. We will enable open research practices; and
  4. We will mutually support and develop research teams.

Focused for feasibility, these objectives are also designed to accommodate a number of research culture initiatives across the University. These range from large-scale, externally funded opportunities – such as the current call by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC) for an EDI sharing hub – to grassroots initiatives, including pilot projects in inclusive recruitment and our planned guidance for hiring managers on the responsible use of short-term contracts. 

Our strategic objectives will be delivered through an action plan spanning the five-year lifetime of the strategy. Each action is linked to clear aims, outputs, outcomes and measures of success. These actions realise a range of new and established projects, including a mix of ‘quick wins’ for momentum and engagement, some slower-burn, longer-term ambitions, and space to respond to unforeseen opportunities. They’re designed to enable us to evidence – in diverse and inclusive ways – our efforts and challenges as we progress. 

What does this mean for me?

There’s no progress without collaboration from the University community. This is critical to the delivery of the strategy, and without buy-in and activity from colleagues, the strategy merely exists as a reference work or latent manifesto.

Working together to change our behaviours, expectations, attitudes and values will shape how our research is developed, conducted, disseminated and used.

There are many research culture initiatives already underway in schools, faculties, and services that respond to local priorities. We encourage colleagues to share their practice with each other and with the team via our events and Research Culture website

Supporting this devolved approach, we expect colleagues to engage across all four objectives throughout the five-year span of this strategy with the freedom to decide how they will be implemented locally. We won’t prescribe what you do beyond that: the point is that it’s meaningful to your colleagues and research partners. We will support colleagues in implementing and monitoring change initiatives using guidance, toolkits and proportionate reporting mechanisms. 

The Research Culture strategy both depends on, and benefits, the collective workforce. While it’s not possible to give an exhaustive list of the responsibilities and outcomes for every job type, the plan sets out some indicative examples. For instance, professional services colleagues should ensure practices adhere to research culture values – e.g. inclusivity in communications. And senior leaders should ensure all institution-level decisions align with research culture strategic objectives. 

Responding to feedback

The launch of the strategy represents the end of one phase (our initial consultations and scoping) and the beginning of the next (implementation and monitoring). It follows huge amounts of consultation and challenge across different disciplines, career stages, backgrounds and job families via our inclusive research culture cafes, committee discussions, visits to schools and faculties, conversations with Executive Deans and Pro-Deans, as well as several survey exercises. 

We adapted our vision in response to feedback from champions, co-operators, passengers and activists. Some of the most useful of these were with the latter, who were vocal, for example, about the importance of visible and effective involvement from University leadership.

This feedback included results from the University’s employee engagement survey held earlier this year, which flagged issues around action on EDI, confidence that unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with effectively, career development opportunities, responsible research assessment, reward and recognition, and workload. 

Survey responses constitute our baseline measures and targets for the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) project, and we checked that our four strategic objectives could deliver the outcomes these responses demanded.

We’ll continue to consult the research community on specific aspects of research culture, such as open research and research integrity, via a series of forthcoming short pulse surveys. These will play a vital role in our work to create a positive and inclusive research culture by helping us better understand how our current culture is experienced and the confidence the research community has in the University to improve this, and by identifying the areas most in need of improvement.

I’m really proud of this approach and I hope colleagues feel connected with our strategy. 

Change in progress

The Research Culture strategy is designed to demonstrate the values and behaviours it promotes. It’s consultative, open yet bounded, universal, multi-level, monitored in diverse and responsible ways, and integrated with wider strategic context.

At its heart, there are a number of key principles we always return to when work gets tough (and it often does!):

  • First, the research culture team is the keeper not the owner of the strategy. Every contribution will shape the strategy as it evolves. 
  • Second, we freely acknowledge that change is hard and requires time and space, so that’s why the University is investing in ways to enable our strategy. 
  • Finally, our culture is improving already. Our objectives are being enacted everywhere: unacceptable behaviour is being challenged, research is diversifying, a wider range of colleagues are being attributed and ongoing professional development is increasingly normalised. 

Thank you to the many people who’ve helped get us to this stage. I’m really excited to work with you during the next five years towards significantly improving the research culture at Leeds.

Further information

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