Thursday, 23 April 2020

Changing a Toxic Research Culture

In January the Wellcome Trust published a report highlighting the ‘toxic environment’ in which much research is undertaken. Many of its findings pointed the finger at the funding structure that underpins it.

“With the constant pressure to secure grant funding and rolling employment contracts,” the report stated, “respondents often said that rivalry and competition over scarce resources made working environments toxic and led to people stepping on one another to get to the top.

 “Interviewees often said that key stakeholders in the sector—government, publishers, funders and institutions—were increasingly risk averse and only interested in short-term gains.”

These findings won’t surprise many readers of Funding Insight. The pressure for scarce resources and the risk aversion of many funders is a subtext of almost everything published in this section.

But what can we do about it? The competitive and corrosive environment has long been recognised by investigators, institutions and funders—after all, if you want to fund the best research, surely there will be losers and casualties, right?—but does everything have to be this way?

Talk of the town

It has taken a body that is as big, and as rich, as the Wellcome Trust to step forward and make the difference. Following the publication of the report, the trust held a series of nine regional town hall meetings.

Eastern Arc hosted one of these at the end of February. Around 80 academics and professional service staff from the three universities and beyond came together to talk about their experiences, and to try to identify ways that the environment can be improved.

The event took the form of a small, closed round-table discussion, followed by a larger, facilitated workshop. In the latter, participants were asked to first look at the results of the Wellcome survey and see if they chimed with what they had experienced or witnessed, and then to discuss how the environment could be changed and problems overcome.

A number of common issues were raised.

  • Principal investigators and other managers need proper training. In the report, 80 per cent of managers had confidence in their ability to manage, yet only 48 per cent had received any training to do so. However, training should not just be a one-off session or even a series of events. Rather, it should be more supportive and continuous mentoring and coaching.
  • There’s a huge difference between disciplines. On the table I was at, there were psychologists and medical historians. None of them recognised the findings of the report on bullying, which found that 43 per cent of respondents had experienced it themselves, and 61 per cent had witnessed it. At the tables that were predominantly science-based, the findings were all too familiar.
  • Funders are as culpable as individuals or institutions. At the round table, the point was raised that standard funding grants replicated and entrenched existing power dynamics. Funding went to an individual, who then had the power over the work and career of those in their team. The suggestion was made that funders give group grants to mitigate the worst effects of this.
In the wider workshops, the table leads—or “designated listeners”—tried to structure discussions around four broad themes: job security, health and wellbeing, teamwork and research quality. However, it was hard to keep the conversation limited to these themes. They affected and informed each other. Good, or bad, teamwork could affect mental health, which could have an impact on job security. All four elements were intertwined parts of the whole.

Forward motion

Discussion is valuable, but change requires action. What will Wellcome do to encourage positive behaviour change?
  • Continue and encourage discussion. There are four more regional workshops left. If you aren’t able to get to one of these, ‘cafe culture’ packs are available so that universities, departments or groups can host their own discussions. In addition, there is an online forum to post your thoughts, which will encourage further comment and debate.
  • Learn from others. Wellcome will be discussing its findings with other funders. A number of organisations, including UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research, have backed Wellcome’s initiative. The trust was due to hold a summit on 18 March to discuss its work and learn from others, including those in the arts, about effecting cultural change. This was, of course, cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Trust intendes to reschedule it once restrictions on social distancing have been lifted. 
  • Change the type and terms of its grants. Once evidence has been gathered, Wellcome will consider a number of possible changes, including an emphasis on training as an allowable cost, building in new leadership criteria to its grant schemes, or embedding a positive research culture as part of its new strategy.
Wellcome has taken a bold and important first step in tackling the normalised inequalities of research culture. The next steps will be crucial in ensuring that that first step, those 4,000 responses, 100 interviews and nine town halls, was not all wasted effort. I’m optimistic. Having talked to those leading the initiative, I’ve been impressed by their understanding of the issues, and their determination to put them right.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in March 2020 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com. It is also available on the Eastern Arc site. 

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