Helping our research community fulfil its potential

“When we go through significant life changes, if we’re supported well, we have more to bring to the table than we did before.”

The latest feature in our series highlighting the outstanding work already underway to improve the research culture at Leeds sees Dr Charlotte Stephenson and Bryony Rowntree reveal how projects they’re leading on are helping ensure we’re mutually supporting and developing research teams across the University.

The overarching aim of our Research Culture Strategy is to enable more of our colleagues to produce leading research inclusively, equitably, openly and supportively. Everyone in our research community must feel valued and empowered to ensure we can best address the unique global challenges facing the world. 

Our Research Culture Strategy identifies four key objectives we aim to deliver during the next five years. One of these focuses on improving the environment in which our research teams are working. 

To ensure researchers can fulfil their potential, we must create frameworks that support professional development. Through our adherence to initiatives including the Researcher Development Concordat and the Technicians Commitment, we will facilitate collaboration over competition, researcher wellbeing plus open and fair employment practices, as well as enabling research colleagues time to engage with professional and career development tailored to their needs.

Helping our research community fulfil its potential. November 2023

Funding inequalities

One of the many examples where this is already happening is through the project led by Dr Charlotte Stephenson – Research Facilitator in Leeds University Business School (LUBS) – aimed at addressing the inequality in research funding.

Research funding is a key measure of research excellence for Higher Education Institutions and, as such, is a core feature of institutional research expectations, annual reviews, rewards and recognition, and promotion criteria. However, diversity data from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) shows inequality in research funding, fellowship applications and awards in terms of gender, race and disability.

There’s a strong need, therefore, to embed enablers and remove barriers to improve access to funding for all. 

Inequality in research funding is a multifaceted issue and isn’t well understood. Through this project, Dr Stephenson and her team aimed to set out evidence-based actions to improve understanding of the situation faced by colleagues in LUBS and, in particular, from currently underrepresented groups within this community. 

The team – comprising Jo Garrick, Hannah Preston, Sarah Shaw, Professor Yingqi (Annie) Wei and Thitikan Khamwan – looked to identify gaps in current data and develop interventions focussed on research funding support, training and development and communications. The aim was to develop future leadership skills and facilitate career progression of researchers and research support staff in LUBS and beyond.

Dr Stephenson said: “Not only does research funding have an impact on an individual academic’s career, but it’s important for funded research to be delivered by the diverse population that makes up our research communities, taking into account their backgrounds and experiences, ensuring research is equitably built and the findings offer benefits for all.”

Enhanced support

A series of facilitated grant-writing retreats were held for LUBS members in July, with different formats ensuring as many people as possible could attend. Feedback was exceptionally positive, with colleagues highlighting that the dedicated time was incredibly valuable. As a result, several attendees have submitted funding applications, with more submissions to follow. The retreats will be repeated during the current academic year thanks to additional Research England funding.

A roadmap for developing research funding was also launched last month following interviews with more than 20 colleagues to discover what their experiences of submitting applications was like. The guide includes everything you need to know about the funding application process, right from developing ideas for a potential project, through to reviewing and refining submissions. It also includes a summary of the recurring enablers and barriers flagged by colleagues, as well other useful resources, such as training and development opportunities.

The project team is also in the process of producing an internal report for LUBS’ senior leadership team, setting out a series of faculty-level enhanced support mechanisms and interventions, guided by the data collected through this project. These proposals have been developed to ensure all colleagues feel supported through each stage of the research funding process, with annual evaluation reviewing the engagement levels and effectiveness of these interventions.  

Future objectives

Phase two of the project – developing an inclusive research culture through improving research support practices – has received further Research England funding. The team will also extend its focus to consider the wider research support provision, which is imperative if we’re to provide a nurturing environment for research to take place.

Not only does this project contribute towards mutually supporting and developing those conducting research, it also helps embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) principles in research practices – one of the other key objectives enshrined in the Research Culture Strategy.

Helping our research community fulfil its potential. November 2023

Bryony Rowntree, who led the Return to Work group project

This is also the case for another pioneering project already underway at Leeds.

The Return to Work group coaching programme aims to support women through the challenging transition back into work following maternity/adoption leave, amid early parenting and all the challenges it brings, whilst getting their brains back into work mode and catching up on changes and progress they’ve missed.  

Led by Personal Development Coach and Mental Health Trainer, Bryony Rowntree, the project’s key objectives include: 

  • building confidence on the return to work
  • connecting with other women in this situation (reducing isolation)
  • developing healthier boundaries
  • improving wellbeing and mental health
  • creating space and time for themselves through the transition back into work
  • feeling more visible
  • proactively asking for help, time and support; and
  • managing pressure.

Pilot programme

The team, which includes Dr Fiona Gill, Jenny Love and Dr Marjorie Boissinot, ran a successful pilot programme during June and July with two cohorts of women working in research, with the opportunity to take part in a one-to-one coaching session.

Participants who were still on leave felt it was helpful in preparing them for the return to work with a baby and understanding what their days might look and feel like. They also reported that talking about work with colleagues and doing the exercises outlined in the project increased feelings of self-worth and clarity, decreased fears and gave them practical things to implement to improve the transition to life as a professional and a mother.

Women who had returned to work during the past year said the programme gave them head space for: 

  • valuing their work and efforts
  • finding clarity on how to create more balance and a clearer focus
  • making steps towards wellbeing and professional progression
  • developing tools to juggle work and motherhood; and 
  • discovering how to make this work for them.  

Pressure was relieved, confidence, hope and inspiration grew, mental health improved, challenges were normalised, self-care prioritised and a supportive community gained.

The programme was described as ‘invaluable’, and both groups were determined it should continue for other women to benefit from.

Supported transition

Bryony said: “For too long, women have had to work like they aren’t a mother and parent like they don’t have a job. This is unrealistic and harmful.  

“With a supported transition, new mothers can return to work with confidence knowing they’re valued. 

“When we go through significant life changes, if we’re supported well, we have more to bring to the table than we did before. And when women hand over their babies to others to care for, they want to make sure that time is productive, fulfilling and impactful.”

The programme supports the retention and development of existing talent at the University, and alleviates a barrier to professional development by offering a supportive path back into work for women. The programme also aligns with EDI objectives by providing an equitable approach to enabling women to be a visible, active and productive part of the research community.

Future objectives include securing funding to roll the project out as a standard opportunity for all women returning to work at Leeds from maternity and adoption leave. Other possibilities include offering an adapted version to people returning to work from long-term sick leave.

Further reading

Embedding equity, diversity and inclusion in our research culture

Inside Track | Helping transform lives through open research

Posted in: