Report calls for better work culture in UK research

Create a positive working culture for the UK’s researchers, or watch the country’s standing as an innovation leader crumble, says new report.

From the Oxford vaccine to the RECOVERY trial, all eyes have been on the triumph of British science in recent months.

But future success is at risk if we do not create a culture that inspires and supports the next generation of researchers, says a report from the Russell Group of universities.

Realising Our Potential: Backing Talent and Strengthening UK Research Culture and Environment makes the case for an overhaul in the way researchers are employed, supported, and included across the science sector.

In a foreword to the document, published earlier this month, the groups’ chief executive Dr Tim Bradshaw, said: “The UK is a world leader in research and innovation, but we cannot take our global success for granted.

“At the heart of our research system are the amazing people who dedicate their careers to advancing new knowledge that will deliver transformative impacts for our health, environment, culture, and economy.”

A positive working environment, he went on, was essential for researchers and, in turn, for research to thrive. But the new report, based on interviews with almost 100 PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, senior academics, university leaders, and funder and publisher representatives highlights a multitude of challenges – including a lack of job security, poor wellbeing, and the need for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

“As the country’s leading research-intensive universities, home to half of all academics carrying out research at UK higher education institutions, Russell Group universities have a central role to play in driving a positive research culture and environment.

“Making this a priority will not only benefit researchers’ wellbeing, career development and research productivity, but will also help give the UK a global competitive advantage.

“This should enable us to recruit and retain the very best researchers, not just from our own shores, but from around the world,” said Dr Bradshaw.

“The UK is a world leader in research and innovation, but we cannot take our global success for granted

 

Job security

A research career should be rewarding, purposeful, and stable, said the report. Yet the lack of long-term contractual job security, which is often linked to external funding, is a “significant concern” for many researchers.

“Researchers we interviewed for this project highlighted the negative impact that precarity within research careers could have on researcher wellbeing, with short-term contracts sometimes making it harder for researchers to gain access to mortgages or plan a career around family life,” said the report.

It pointed to a survey by Vitae which found that 75% of respondents who left European universities or research institutes did so because they wanted better long-term employment prospects, more job security, or did not want to be employed on fixed-term contracts.

“The pressure of fixed-term contracts and job insecurity means we are losing people from the global academic talent pipeline,” said the authors.

The report also said that people employed on a succession of short-term contracts were forced to spend considerable amounts of time seeking out the next opportunity, undermining research quality.

“Boosting quality-related ‘QR’ block grant funding for universities (and its equivalents in the devolved nations), considering opportunities to lengthen research grant funding periods, and reducing the use of academic contracts that last one year or less can all help address this,” said the report.

Wellbeing

While the culture in the UK is positive for the quality of research, the same cannot be said for mental health and wellbeing.

“Increasing pressures to juggle multiple responsibilities and expectations alongside core research work can lead to long working hours, reduced time for high-quality management, and negative impacts on staff wellbeing,” said the report.

Seventy percent of respondents to a Wellcome survey cited in the report said they felt stress during an average working day. Social and personal isolation were identified as particularly apparent during PhD study.

It was a theme echoed by many of the senior academics interviewed for the Russell Group report, who said they were concerned about the health and wellbeing of postgraduate research students and early career researchers.

“Building on existing good practice, management and leadership skills could be more consistently recognised and rewarded by funders and employers across the sector,” said the authors.

“Efforts to reduce bureaucracy for researchers and ensure they can access support networks beyond their immediate line manager or research group are important.”

Diversity, inclusivity, and respect

The report also said the sector should make more of an effort to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce where “every member of staff can reach their full potential”.

“There is strong evidence that workforce diversity and inclusion is not only important for reasons of equal opportunities and social justice, but also because this enhances organisational productivity, innovation and decision-making,” said the authors.

They added that greater diversity also impacts the quality and relevance of the research – a concept that is ever more important as medical science the world over attempts to address historic health inequalities.

“Diverse perspectives are associated with a more heterogeneous array of research ideas, viewpoints and questions driving the creation of new knowledge and discoveries,” said the report.

“Studies have… found that a greater mix of nationalities and ethnicities is correlated with enhanced citation impact.”

Appropriate equality, diversity and inclusivity training for those people making decisions about grant proposals and researchers’ careers is important, as is ensure funding panels and other committees include people from more diverse backgrounds.

Looking ahead

The UK is a world leader in research and innovation, offering researchers a wide array of opportunities. But, the report said, the sector cannot afford to ignore the challenges.

“Unless all stakeholders in the research and innovation ecosystem take these issues seriously and act collectively and collaboratively, we will be limited in what we can achieve.

“By working together, we can learn from each other and foster nurturing environments that will ensure we can continue to attract and retain talented individuals from all backgrounds and support them to flourish,” it concluded.

  • To read the full report and to find out more ab out the group’s new Research Culture and Environment Toolkit, click here.

About the author

Amanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, healthcare professionals and the general public.