Vibrant research cultures do not just emerge by magic

The UK’s structures for supporting and nurturing research leaders are woefully underdeveloped, says Matthew Flinders

February 11, 2020
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What makes some research teams fizz with intellectual energy while others fall flat? That is a complex question, but arguably the most important element of any successful research environment is not money, staff or facilities but a dynamic research culture.

Encompassing the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of research communities, this nebulous but crucial factor provides, at its best, the professional and intellectual glue, social capital or “scholarly spirit” that ensures that researchers produce far more than the sum of their parts.

Yet despite the modern expectation for researchers to be “change makers” in societal as well as academic terms, the role and significance of nurturing positive research cultures has generally been overlooked. Which is exactly why the Wellcome Trust’s recent report on what UK researchers think about “the culture they work in” provides such an important, timely and ultimately worrying set of insights.

Respondents say that their working culture is best when it is collaborative, inclusive, supportive and creative; when researchers are given time to focus on their research priorities; when leadership is transparent and open; and when individuals have a sense of safety and security. But too often research culture is not at its best.

While most researchers feel that their sector is producing high-quality outputs, they also report major concerns about how sustainable the culture is in the long term. They say that conditions are being worsened by a complex network of incentives from government, funders and institutions that seem to focus on quantity of outputs and narrow concepts of “impact”, rather than on real quality. “The upshot is that they feel intense pressure to publish, with too little value placed on how results are achieved and the human costs,” the report says.

Corrosive competition too often thwarts collaboration. Job insecurity fuels anxiety. Increasing expectations are rarely matched with increased resources or rewards, which leads to declining levels of mental health and well-being. Added to this are complaints about a lack of basic support or feedback, with many researchers experiencing exploitation, discrimination, harassment and bullying.

Possibly the most depressing finding is that only 60 per cent of researchers think creativity is welcomed in their working environment, and 75 per cent believe that creativity is stifled by an emphasis on impact.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, described the findings as “shocking”, adding that “the pressures of working in research must be recognised and acted upon by all, from funders to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions”.

This is undoubtedly correct. However, vibrant research cultures do not just emerge by magic. They are crafted and curated by talented research leaders who energetically promote and, importantly, protect a specific vision of an ambitious, agile research endeavour. In my experience, such cultures are rarely defined or sustained by a “heroic leader”, but by flatter structures in which different people hold different leadership roles within a team-based approach. Even if there is a senior scholar nominally at the helm, the most effective tend to “lead from the back”, focusing on nurturing future talent.

The UK’s existing structures for supporting and nurturing research leaders remain woefully underdeveloped, highly fragmented and predominantly focused on early career researchers. Having spent the past 18 months undertaking a national review into research leadership, I have found that the most common elements associated with a successful research career tend to be luck and supportive mentoring.

Research leaders generally receive very little formal training or support in managing major projects or cultivating cultures. And academics’ typical paucity of experience in other professional environments dulls their cultural sensitivity to different and more dynamic ways of working. The UK needs a strategic research leadership development framework that runs throughout the professional journey, from pre-doc to distinguished professor, and facilitates the mobility of people, ideas and talent.

Put simply, creating positive research cultures demands that we recognise why research leadership matters so much in the first place.

Matthew Flinders is founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also president of the Political Studies Association and his report on research leadership will be published by the Economic and Social Research Council in February.


Print headline: Careful crafting required

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