Research Culture: where do you start?

This post was originally published on the MetisTalk blog on 7 April 2022.

Across the UK, a growing number of universities are starting to appoint dedicated research culture staff. At Glasgow, I’ve been lucky enough to take on their research culture portfolio when the fabulous Tanita Casci and Elizabeth Adams, co-founders of Glasgow’s Research Culture work with Miles Padgett, both left within a few weeks of each other. Glasgow has a clear research culture action plan, and much has been achieved. However, a recent research culture survey has, once again, highlighted challenges we’re keen to address. So like many others beginning research culture roles, I find myself asking, where do you start? How do you prioritise what feel like equally pressing needs?

Low-hanging fruit?

It’s tempting to go straight for the low-hanging fruit: the issues you can fix quickly with little resource; those things well within your jurisdiction. And why not? If they are genuine needs and you can address them swiftly, this might be a good use of your time. And you can show the community you’re dedicated to making progress. 

The challenge is that quick-fixes rarely solve the most deep-seated research culture problems, and when you run your annual research culture survey next time around, you might find that the lived experience for most researchers hasn’t changed that much. A lot of initiatives in the research culture space (think EDI and well-being initiatives) come under attack because they start with the low-hanging fruit (think celebrating International Women’s Day or running yoga classes), leading the community to believe their actions are just window-dressing.

Biggest problem first?

So, perhaps we should tackle the biggest issues first? How to give researchers more time to actually do research? How to tackle job precarity amongst early career researchers? How to eradicate toxic power imbalances from our labs? There’s a strong and urgent need to address these issues in our organisations. And if we’re squeamish about this we certainly shouldn’t be taking jobs in research culture. However, many of the bigger issues can’t be solved unilaterally by one institution, or they are a function of wider systemic problems such as the university funding model. So if you just start here, the chances are you might get no further in your whole research culture career.

Opportunism?

One approach, of course, is to see what crosses your path and go with the flow. An academic might propose a solution to a local problem that you can support. An external organisation might be offering a leadership training package you can buy into. You might get an opportunity to piggy-back on other internal or external developments that enhance your organisational culture.

However, whilst we don’t want to stick so rigidly to our plans that we miss out on the serendipitous, it feels a little reactive so just be tossed and blown by the winds of opportunity. Call me a control freak, but this isn’t the path for me. 

Start with what you value?

As the Chair of the  INORMS Research Evaluation Group I have been heavily involved in the development of their SCOPE framework for responsible research evaluation. As such, when thinking about ‘where to start’ with anything, I cannot help but to return to its first tenet, to ‘Start with what you value’. Identifying where to start with our research culture must surely begin with a proper understanding of what we value about a positive research culture: what does good look like? And a sense of the gap between what we have and what we want.

Maybe it’s the researcher in me, but I’m convinced that surfacing the values of our research communities through workshops and surveys is a really good way to get to the heart of the matter. However, you won’t get unanimous agreement on a way forward. You’ll get views ranging from the jaded to the enthusiastic; from the big-pictures to the personal bugbears; from car-parking to career progression, and everything in between.

Where do you start?

I do think that the values surfaced through these exercises have to be our starting point though. We need a strong sense of the lived experience of our research communities: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And an understanding of the issues that mean the most to the most. But we need these values to translate into a portfolio of actions across the short, medium and long term. So, to return to my own question, ‘where do you start?’, I would answer, ‘all of the above’. We need some quick wins, some long-haul too-important-not-to-try ambitions, and an openness to opportunities that aren’t in the plan. What matters is that they are all in line with your institution’s ‘heart’ and that you can evidence your efforts, your progress, and even your failures, as you go.

Ultimately, whilst those of us who care deeply enough about research culture to make it our daily occupation are likely to care deeply about starting in the right place, perhaps it doesn’t really matter where you start, as long as you start?

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