Employment and HR

Wellcome to the bright new future of research culture

23 Jan 2020

The recently published report by the Wellcome Trust on “What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In” presents a rather bleak picture about the working culture in research organisations.

The aim of the Report, and Wellcome’s wider activities, is to create positive research environments and it provides a vital platform for the discussions which will hopefully facilitate such change.

Below, I consider what it may look like if Wellcome achieves its aim, suggest an overall guiding strategy for achieving it and make some practical suggestions of what research organisation may wish to do in order to further that strategy.

This is important because research organisations are the start of the pipeline of academic talent and creativity that feeds a crucial aspect of the UK’s economic growth. As Christine Berry has explained, research integrity is a fundamental pillar of the UK’s innovation economy. While there is much to be optimistic about in this regard, it is vital that toxic working cultures do not cause a brain drain (foreshadowed in Wellcome’s Report) which undermines the UK’s status as a world leader in science and technology.

What does a more positive working culture look like?

As an employment lawyer with experience in helping organisations of all types create, maintain and enforce positive working cultures, my view is that it is always helpful to start such a project with a clear vision of the “best case culture”. In doing so, however, it is important to recognise the atypical nature of the research workplace (especially the nature of the way research groups are funded and the prominent influence of leading academics on relatively small teams) and the consequent need for thought leadership from influential organisations such as the Wellcome Trust.

To this end, research organisations should be striving to create positive research environments with cultures which, among other things:

  • Support creativity, challenges and new ideas.

In my experience of working with businesses, a culture which engenders openness in issues which may seem small or ancillary (as HR issues are often perceived) is one which generates openness in all things. This is of fundamental importance to research and cannot be understated – particularly if one keeps in mind an institution’s obligation to uphold the principle of academic freedom of speech (which I also touch on in the blog linked below).

One worrying aspect of the Wellcome Report is that researchers have reported a stifling of creativity in academia. As research is a fundamentally creative endeavour, this arguably represents an existential risk to the sector and needs to be urgently and comprehensively remedied.

  • Have proactive and responsive leadership.

This requires robust policies and procedures with regard to appropriate conduct, complaints and investigations. Institutions must deal with any misconduct (whether it be bullying, sexual harassment or research malpractice) in a swift and transparent manner which deals with each individual even-handedly, regardless of rank or influence.

Sadly, the Wellcome Report notes that many researchers have “experienced exploitation, discrimination, harassment and bullying” – 43% report suffering it, 61% report having witnessed it and, shockingly, only 37% of researchers would feel confident speaking out about it.

  • Support collaboration and individuals, particularly those at the wrong end of a power imbalance.

Such an imbalance can take several forms (or a mixture of forms): able v disabled; senior v junior; and, male v female, etc. For example, the Report notes that 62% of disabled researchers and 49% of female researchers reported suffering bullying and harassment – both much higher than the overall average.

In order to begin the difficult task of breaking down systemic inequalities, institutions should approach this issue openly and engage with staff about their experiences, for example around issues of sexual harassment, discrimination and mental health. This will allow more effective policies to be devised which can address the particular concerns of each individual workplace. It will also help individuals feel more comfortable about coming forward with issues.

Importance of culture

The importance of striving towards a “best case culture” should not be underestimated. For much of the past decade Taylor Vinters has worked extensively with one of the UK’s Research Councils (and various of its sponsored research institutes) to foster positive workplace cultures in research environments and to deal with a wide range of associated matters regarding governance, leadership, employment and organisational change. More recently we have been working on issues relating to research ethics and integrity in academia, instances of research misconduct and the legal duties/obligations surrounding the exercise of academic freedom of speech.

As a consequence, we have become increasingly engaged in how the UK will ensure that the output from its research sector can be relied on by businesses, funders and other investors to operate to the highest standards of research ethics and integrity. This is also fundamental to the way in which research is spun-out for commercial exploitation.

Our further work with companies, which are heavily IP-based, operating in competitive (usually global) markets and dependent on attracting and retaining the most talented workforce in their sector, enables us to understand the big-picture aspect of the need for the research community to operate to the highest standards of research best practice.

A holistic strategy is key to creating a more positive working culture

I have written a number of commentaries in recent months which relate to various associated good research practices, particularly in respect of issues concerning the exercise of academic freedom of speech and, more pertinently, how this fits within the framework of a more regulated structure for research ethics.

For example, I recently produced this blog on the Universities UK’s recent Revised Concordat to Support Research Integrity, which (in essence) requires a more pro-active approach from employers of researchers (and others) in order to create a more positive research environment around research ethics and integrity, including a much more robust approach to tackling misconduct.

The Wellcome Trust is, unsurprisingly, one of the original signatories to this document. My view is that Wellcome should be drawing together these two areas – a holistic approach ensures that positive and ethical working cultures become deeply ingrained in research organisations. These two aspects of research culture can create a virtuous circle of mutual reinforcement and learnings.

In particular, the approach advocated by the Concordat with regard to research misconduct is to be strongly commended and should be extended to all aspects of a research environment, in particular in areas which are often overlooked such as effective, compassionate leadership and overall employee wellbeing.

As the Report notes, the “impacts [of the poor working culture] include a loss of quality, with corners being cut and outputs becoming increasingly superficial…and the cherry-picking of results and data massaging”. Further, it also notes that researchers that ethical standards may be relaxed to achieve results which satisfy funding criteria and that such criteria were a “core driver of research misconduct”. For example, only 46% of researchers felt they had a clear idea of their organisation’s standards for research integrity and 23% of junior researchers felt pressured by senior colleagues to achieve a certain result. In short, a poor working culture has a direct and negative impact on research integrity.

What can be done to create a more positive working culture?

In order to begin creating a more positive working environment, research organisations should draw upon the practices of industry and large corporates (with appropriate consideration of their unique dynamics), in particular by adopting a threefold approach to implementing ideas such as those above and achieving the overarching aim of a positive working environment:

1. Creation

We often help employers develop policies on issues such as: whistleblowing; bullying and harassment; equality and diversity; grievances; disciplinaries; and research misconduct. These are the bedrock of any organisation which practices what it preaches with regard to positive work cultures.

All members of staff can read these documents and be aligned with global values which dictate minimum standards of behaviour. Further, any funding arrangements must give some priority to compliance with such policies on research culture and integrity.

My experience suggests that academic institutions adopt a much more ad hoc approach to such matters than the large corporate organisations for which we act – it comes therefore as no surprise to us than the former have significant issues with toxic working environments. This also extends to the employment contracts under which researches work – the Report confirms that high numbers of UK academics work under insecure “exploitative” contracts, which compounds the stresses of the poor culture overall.

2. Enforcement

This observation may seem trite, but even with the best policies in the world, a culture will not change if those policies are not enforced. However, workplace investigations (particularly at small employers) are replete with pitfalls which have the potential to badly damage employee relations – particularly if sexual harassment is concerned.

The backbone of any thorough and impartial investigation must always be natural justice – done and seen to be done – for all concerned in the allegations. Managers and HR professionals should be trained both on policies and how to carry out proper, fair investigations. Leaders should also be encouraged to be trend setters in this regard and to be proactive in supporting colleagues (particularly junior ones).

3. Sanctions

Employers must also be robust and decisive if an investigation reveals facts which require sanctions, up to and including dismissal, to be imposed. This can be very difficult – especially if the guilty party is very senior, high profile or otherwise important to the organisation.

This is the point at which specialist legal guidance can be helpful to avoid significant financial or reputational damage, but a general culture in the wider industry of zero tolerance to bad conduct is a powerful driver in ensuring best practice in any particular instance. Institutions such as Wellcome have a significant part to play in this regard by acting as thought leaders and trendsetters of the new normal.

Further discussion

The ideas which I have sketched out above are, of course, rather general and preliminary – there needs to be even more engagement with researchers and organisations in order to breathe life into all three aspects of the above: the desired “best case culture”; the overall strategy which will guide us to it; the practical steps to be taken in implementing the strategy.

In order to facilitate this engagement, Wellcome has taken the highly commendable step of encouraging stakeholders to host “Café Culture” discussion “to talk about the challenges you face and your ideas on how to improve things”. We look forward to contributing further to these ongoing discussions.

23 Jan 2020

Insights Employment and HR