Will many hammers finally crack the tough nuts in improving research culture and careers?

Posted 08/11/2019 by Sarah Nalden

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Dr Katie Wheat

by  Dr Katie Wheat, Head of Higher Education, Engagement

In the space of just over a month, a flurry of initiatives, announcements and publications have been released into the sector, each looking at some of the most enduring challenges that mean we fall short of the positive research culture we aspire to. Even the use of the term ‘positive research culture’ feels like a relatively recent upgrade from ‘research culture’, considering that only a year ago, participants at the Royal Society Changing Expectations conference were still grappling with what fundamentally makes research culture what it is, and trying to understand what radical changes to research systems, attitudes and behaviours might change culture for the better.
Now, a year later, we have seen a new institute formed for ‘research on research’, with one of its top three priority areas being research culture, a campaign by Wellcome to ‘reimagine research culture’, a UKRI position statement addressing bullying and harassment, the Broken Pipeline report by Leading Routes highlighting the pervasive discriminatory cultures and fixed notions of excellence that disadvantage BME students and staff, as well as the release of not one, but two, revised concordats – the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers (Researcher Development Concordat) and the Concordat to Support Research Integrity (Research Integrity Concordat) - with both concordats now acknowledging of the importance of research culture.
In the 2012 publication of the Research Integrity Concordat, there was already a strong focus on the culture of research integrity as something to be embedded, nurtured and maintained. However, the 2019 version goes a step further, asking funders and employers to “consider whether their policies and processes create disincentives for the creation and embedding of a positive research culture”. Could this broader use of the term ‘positive research culture’ and the recognition that disincentives for a positive research culture may be an unintended consequence of some of the policies and processes that are currently integral to the operation of our funders and institutions, be one of the hammers needed to crack the tough nuts in improving the culture of our research ecosystem? 
Hammer cracking nutSimilarly, the 2019 Research Development Concordat now starts with a Principle for Environment and Culture, stating that “excellent research requires a supportive and inclusive research culture” and recognising that “a proactive and collaborative approach is required between all stakeholders, to create and develop positive environments and cultures”. The addition of specific obligations for both funders and the managers of researchers (in addition to the employers of researchers and researchers), as well the expectation that signatories to the Concordat will collectively engage in making progress against some of the ‘wicked problems’ (e.g. in tackling precarious employment for researchers and tracking researcher career destinations beyond academia) again, may help us address some of the pervasive challenges that the previous iterations of the Concordat have made slow progress against.
From what I have seen at the various launch events for the Research Development Concordat over the last month, researchers’ reactions to the Researcher Development Concordat so far have been what I would call ‘healthy scepticism’. And it is right to question whether this one agreement will make any difference, no matter how many ‘teeth’ it may or may not have, simply because the sum of the challenges it aims to tackle are far bigger than the development of researchers.
Similarly, the Research Integrity Concordat  can be tied to funding, and employers can be scrutinised to check they are compliant, but it really comes down to a fundamental shift in attitudes that allows us to critically examine the pillars holding up our research system, and consider that at the same time, they may be inadvertently holding in place a research culture that we want to escape from; one that is highly competitive, and pursues an unhealthy image of ‘excellence’ at the expense of individuals.
On the Research England blog, Stephen Hill stated that improving research integrity “is also about incentivising best practice and ensuring that poor practice is not being inadvertently encouraged”; a statement that could apply across the breadth of research culture. On the one hand, there should be rewards for doing the right thing, both at an individual and organisational level, and on the other, it is important to remove the potential rewards to be reaped from ‘gaming the system’.
How far these the various motivations, pressures and drivers in the research system go towards influencing researcher behaviour and, in turn, what effect these have on research integrity, is the focus of a study commissioned by Research England, on behalf of UKRI, and led by Vitae in partnership with the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO). We have many initiatives now locking in on the tough nut of creating a positive research culture, including five (soon to be six) different concordats, many campaigns, events, surveys, and committees. A large-scale survey as part of Vitae and UKRIO’s study aims to understand how these initiatives, policies and processes are impacting on  research integrity and research culture. Can we be sure we are using the right policy tools, in targeted and appropriate ways, and not sledgehammers to crack nuts?
I would encourage you to complete the survey, if you haven’t already, and to share it with colleagues and networks, including all individuals working in research policy and research in the UK, so that we can ensure a wide range of views of the research ecosystem and the potential incentives and disincentives for the positive research culture we all aspire to.