Welcome to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be. You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.Emma:
Hi, it's Emma, and for those of you who don't know me yet, I lead the researcher development and culture team at the University of Leeds. You're joining us in season one of our research culture uncovered podcast, where we're getting to know our co-hosts in a bit more detail before they go on to host seasons of their own, each covering a different aspect of research culture.
But today we're mixing things up a bit and rather than introducing you to a co-host, we're introducing you to someone who is very active in the research culture space and is now working with different institutions to help them with their plans and ideas for cultural change. I'm delighted to introduce Dr. Elizabeth Adams, who was previously leading this work at Glasgow University, helping to establish the lab for academic culture before making the switch to running her own company. Elizabeth is working with us at the University of Leeds as a critical friend, helping us to identify challenges and solutions as we pull together our research culture, strategy, and implementation.
Elizabeth and I have worked together on many occasions and we were both part of the researcher development Concordat writing group where I think it's fair to say we pushed the group, along with another colleague, to ensure that the concordat had more teeth. I certainly remember us using the phrase “It needs more teeth” quite a lot. Is that how you remember it Elizabeth?Elizabeth:
Yeah, I think so. It was a really good opportunity to bring a lot of work together and really think about what will actually make a difference for researchers on the ground. And, and we had a lot of funders in the room as well as, um, people from different types of organizations and just trying to make sure that everyone got a chance to share what was really important to them, but actually also think about how, how can we do something that's really aspirational that people can gather around and really challenge some of the current practice.
So, yeah, more teeth and yeah, went well.Emma:
definitely needed more teeth. Uh, I think when we were trying to please so many different stakeholders, there was a real fear that it was going to end up being a document that didn't really have the clout that we needed in order to get the change that we required.Elizabeth:
It was a third iteration of the Concordat wasn't it. And I think in my time working in researcher development, I saw huge changes in the postgraduate researcher landscape and just not so much with postdocs. And I think they were always the forgotten population, and it was very easy to place lots of support around the postgraduate structures and then just assume that maybe some of that might trickle down to research staff, when actually a lot of the issues were very different and very stark and very pressing for people at that stage in their careers and in their lives.Emma:
So I think that was actually the start of a lot of the emphasis that we've now got in the sector around research culture. And you could argue that when Wellcome Trust conducted their, um, what researchers think of the culture they work in survey in 2019. They, they poked the bear. And that got a lot of people talking about it, um, in both a positive and negative way. But it does feel to me now anyway, that there is a much more positive energy around this.
People are more engaged with it. They're open to hearing about the negative, um, effects of our culture. But given that you've been working in this area for a while and that you're working with so many different stakeholders that have a role to play in this arena, what do you think the sector is seeing in terms of change?Elizabeth:
It's really interesting that you've sort of mentioned that as being sort of the start of some of the work. And I really liked how that concordat brought together a lot of issues that were sort of bubbling up. And, and that for me was the start of research culture in thinking about how can we bring together lots of different areas of thinking around researcher wellbeing, researcher careers, research integrity.
And a lot of our work, um, at the University of Glasgow had come from the research integrity sphere. We were really thinking about what makes for good, rigorous, robust research that people can kind of feel proud of, and, and that's thorough and, and where the data management goes all the way through. And a lot of the times we'd come up against questions of, well, if people are on really short term contracts, how can they finish the project in a way that's thorough and where they've written up all the results?
You know, if postdocs have then had to leave and move to a different role and they're trying to juggle writing up publications from a previous role with their current role, and no one's quite sure where the data's gone, you know it, you could really see how issues in the system were having a negative impact on research integrity and rigor.
So that was where a lot of our research culture conversations came from. And then whether institutions choose to think about it in terms of fixing the problems or building on the good stuff, I think there's lots of different ways of looking at it, and I think that's quite why it's quite exciting to work with lots of different institutions because every institution's quite different in how they, they're structured and it's often the same issues that come up. But the roads, the roads, then to tackle them can be quite different. So thinking about, do we start with research integrity and getting people to think about how do we join forces to make sure that our research is as good as it can be.
Or do we start with careers, thinking about how do we really attract and retain talent and and develop talent and there's lots of different roads in. So it's an exciting landscape, I think, for that reason.Emma:
So you mentioned, um, in that part around all of the different challenges and the issues often being the same, even though organizations can be structured differently and approaching this differently, can you see clear areas where you think we're making progress?Elizabeth:
In most institutions I see pockets of really amazing work going on, and sometimes those can be led by the li, the library and really enthusiastic librarians who really want to drive forward good practice around things like open research. In some places it's in particular schools or departments, quite often places like psychology and neuroscience, where again, there's a lot around open research.
Or there might be researcher led networks, or it might be researcher development teams who are really trying to make a difference and, and I think that often is the case. So I think there's lots of good examples of practice, and those are just the areas that we have to start building on and learning from as well.
And also being bold enough to see that some of the things are a pilot that we're going to learn on, and then it's okay if they don't work the first time, but that's part of the process and we can learn from each other.Emma:
That's a really interesting point, isn't it, that learning from each other because I, I still don't think there is enough sharing between institutions.
Um, and in quite a few of the episodes that I'm leading on, I talk a lot about collaboration being the key. I mean, I'm not just talking about collaboration internally, but it's how we collaborate together as a sector. Because I think you'll agree this isn't something that individual institutions can tackle on their own.Elizabeth:
Yeah, I think you're right. And, and A tendency maybe to assume that individuals or departments or universities or funders, nobody has, um, nobody can do anything. Everyone thinks it's someone else sees problem to fix and anything until those conversations happen and, and people work together and learn from each other, it, it won't be fixed.
I think there's lots of really good things going on in terms of funders piloting different types of systems for allocating funding, for minimizing unconscious bias. Things like the lotteries that are being tried or the, um, narrative CV approach. But institutions could try some of these as well. You know, institutions have small pots of funding for, um, like impact acceleration accounts, things like that.
You know, what are the options that they have there to be a little bit more creative in terms of how they award internal funding or funding for studentships, for example. So I think there could be small scale pilots, and the key thing is finding who in the institution is responsible for that, because it might not be the people who are responsible for research culture or researcher development or HR.
And bringing those people together and, and helping them sort of see why this is important, because I'm sure they've got lots of other things to do. So how can they find the time or the support or the energy or, or the good practice to, to try stuff out and then feed it back into the wider system.Emma:
So we've mentioned there about collaboration and time always comes up as a barrier to, to change and, um, we don't want research culture to be another thing that people feel they have to engage with. So it's how we, um, as researcher developers, in my case, help to support people to see that it, it shouldn't be something additional if we're getting it right.
It should feel more natural and it should become embedded in what we do. So that's one of the challenges we've got. Um, what other challenges do you think exist?Elizabeth:
I think it feels like a huge investment of time if you're sort of always pushing water uphill or you're always filling out surveys or reading more position papers, strategies, action plans.
So I think there has to be a real genuine commitment from the top in institutions to actually bring things together and always be thinking about reduction of bureaucracy and and workloads and thinking if this is something we're serious about, how do we make sure that the tools that we use actually empower people to act on their own particular areas of research culture that they want to address?
There's tons and tons of data in institutions just floating about how do we make sure that the people who need to be able to use that data have access to it? So if, for example, we think that heads of school have a role in setting the culture and tone of their, their school or institute, how do we empower them to do that?
How do we empower them to temperature check, to, to feel supported, to then act and, and address poor culture as well as sort of setting the tone for good culture? And I think that sort of data question is one that most institutions shy away from. It's just so complex, and I know when I started working in researcher development, most institutions didn't even know how many research staff members they actually had, and I think we've progressed, but I'm sure it's still challenging to find out in a lot of places. And who do you count and does it matter who you count? And, and all of those questions, um, that just make it really hard to get hold of the right kind of data and, and data's not all of the answer, but it might help inform some decisions and prioritize where the, the time and energy should be spent.
And then that leadership has to come from the top and, and they have to get behind it and say, here's the priorities, here's the things that we want to do. In a way that then empowers local units to also sort of act and prioritize the things that they need to do and that they feel inspired about.Emma:
I love your optimism that we can identify all of our researchers in different categories really easily. Not at Leeds at the moment, we're working on it, but I think it's fair to say we've got quite a way to go. Um, just as an example, uh, I was doing a, a bit of a data pull, um, a few weeks ago, and we have 21 different job titles for the same postdoctoral research role. So it can, you know, we do need to work on the systems as well as, um, as well as the culture from the people side.
So we've talked a little bit about the challenges, um, and how it needs that top down support and you've also pulled in there about surveys and I think that's probably something as a sector we struggle with. There are lots of different surveys, there are lots of, um, different types of survey as well. So one of the things we're thinking of introducing are shorter pulse surveys, but I'm going to put you on the spot now and ask if there are any, um, key recommendations for raising engagement levels with survey.Elizabeth:
This isn't shock news, but actually making people feel like something's gonna be done with the results. So, So I'm a really big fan of pulse surveys and I think if they're sort of directed towards specific areas of focus and action and that people can clearly see why they're being asked about these things and what's gonna happen and, and again, the leadership being behind them is really key.
When we ran a research culture survey at Glasgow, we had only, I think, 10 questions and, and we trialled the questions with various groups to find out, you know, are these actually things that we can do something with the results? Because I think it very easy to add sort of padding questions, so I think keeping it short is great and that that potentially led to a really high response rate.
I say potentially because there was other things there as well. We had a lot of senior leadership behind the survey, sending it out to people and saying, You know, we really do want these results and we'll use them in lots of different ways and we'll give the, the heads of school and sort of deputize people within schools access to the results so that they can really interrogate them and understand what they, they need to focus on.
We try to make it as useful as possible but the really interesting thing for me was that the response rate from academic staff was almost double that of research staff. And I don't think that that was due to us not having the networks or the access to research staff. We, we had those and our research staff reps worked really hard to try and get engagement in the survey, but I think there was just a, a genuine feeling of I won't be here in a year's time.
My contract doesn't last that long. So why should I bother with another survey when actually the most important thing for me in my career right now is that I, that I do the research and I get published, and I think when people are feeling that pressure to just get the work done, they're gonna find it really difficult to engage in something where it doesn't feel like it's gonna have an impact.Emma:
That's absolutely what we hear all the time. You know, the short term contracts make it really hard for people to buy into an organizational culture. And as you say, that career pull that people have, where they're looking what their next step might be and what they need to get there has to be the priority for a lot of them.
So if I were to put you on the spot, Given that you're doing so much work in this area across the sector and working with so many of us, what do you hope to see happen in the next five years?Elizabeth:
I think my biggest wish would be that institutions really place value on the research staff population and really think creatively about things like contract length.
Is it acceptable to have six month and three month contracts? Is that really acceptable? I think during Covid we didn't, um, very few people left the university except by their own choice because we found ways to keep contracts going. And I think there, there are people with tremendously transferable skills who have worked in many different areas.
And I think more could be done to make that, uh, a more permanent contract rather than keeping them on a short term contract. So that, that's one thing about the value. But the other thing I think is when people are having to apply to lots and lots of different institutions for academic jobs or for research staff jobs, don't make them all apply through really clunky, onerous online systems.
If it takes you several hours to input what's basically your CV and like the, the results that you had at school, one by one in 10 online system, that's, that just seems really cruel. And not the way that we want to treat people, who we want to welcome their, their talent and their energy and, and ideas into the UK research system.
I think we'll lose people. We're already losing people. People from Europe don't want to come here because it's already difficult and, and becoming less friendly, more hostile, and that's, that's just Europe, but actually the rest of the world as well. I don't think we're seen as a welcoming place anymore.
And really disparaging because one of the best things about working in academia for me was the incredibly multicultural, exciting environment with people with different perspectives and ideas. And we need to think about how do we really value people coming in with those exciting ideas.Emma:
Do you think the, um, the work that's going on around the narrative CV format could play into any of this?Elizabeth:
I like the fact that we might potentially work towards, uh, uh, a sort of unified way of, um, presenting CVs and that that could be carried out through recruitment, promotion, probation grant applications. That would be amazing. I have lots of concerns with narrative formats. I would say that having piloted them, I think my concerns were the same with non-narrative formats as well now, and the biases that reviewers bring into them. So I think some, some focus on how reviewers are trained to think about CVs is really important. Yeah. I like the idea that we're placing value on things that are much wider than just publications and outputs and, and the university that you first attended, because I think there's a lot of kind of dubious proxies that go on, shortcuts that people take when they skim read CVs.
And I think if we can find ways for reviewers really to have time, and that again, it comes back to that question of time if we, if we think this is important, people need to be spending longer than just one or two minutes skim reading CVs and pulling out the salient points or what they think are the salient points.
Um, yeah, so I, I'd like to see more focus on how CVs are reviewed and discussed in panels and, and people sort of picking up on any of the sort of unconscious biases so that we all learn together.Emma:
So I've just put down another podcast where we're going to cover that in a lot more detail. So I'll make a note and send you some details of that one because I think there's a huge amount of learning and um, also learning by what we've tried and hasn't worked as well to stop people from making the same mistakes.
Um, so stay tuned for a future episode on that. Um, we are almost up to time, but I want to give you the opportunity to tell us anything that we haven't already covered or, I don't know, give yourself a big plug, uh, however you want to use the, the time before we close this episode.Elizabeth:
One of the things that I've seen Leeds do recently was the, um, sharing interview questions in advance for recruitment. And I thought that was really interesting. Um, I'd been working with someone who has autism recently and, and he told me about how difficult it was for him to show up to job at, um, interviews. And he just didn't want to apply for a new job, even though he really did want to apply for a new job because he found the interviews just too challenging.
And, you know, he thought that was a great idea and great practice. So I, I'm really happy to see that happening and that you've shared how that went as well so that other people can sort of try it out. Um, I've also seen it tried out recently where for some people it really worked and actually for other people, they turned up and said, Oh, I'm just gonna wing it.
I didn't, I didn't bother reading the questions. And then immediately for the panel, they're thinking, What? You didn't bother reading the questions? Oh, do you not care about the job? So I think it's really interesting that for every sort of nudge that you make, you have to then think, but what other sort of checks and balances do we have to have in place so that people then don't kind of rush to other assumptions and, and things that maybe aren't helpful or, or could be harmful.
So I think that's why having really good engagement and everything's really vital and, and not being afraid to, to get that criticism. And sort of welcoming that criticism of new ideas because by getting different perspectives on it, um, they'll only get better and they'll get better for everybody.Emma:
Brilliant. Thank you very much and thank you again for joining us today.Elizabeth:
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