Researcher cultures and career development – how can we do better?

4 February 2021

Guest blog by:
Professor Priscilla Harries, Associate Dean Research, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London;
Professor Vanora Hundley, Deputy Dean Research and Professional Practice, Bournemouth University;

Professor Sue Latter, Professor of Health Services Research, University of Southampton.

Research benefits society- it drives innovation and helps us to know ‘what works’. We need research to improve people’s lives and drive prosperity. To achieve our ambitions, we need supportive environments that enable our researchers to thrive. There have been a number of recent policy developments in this arena and it is useful to reflect on how these are positively driving change.

The Vitae Researcher Development Concordat was updated in 2019. The expectations are clear- for example, universities are to provide a minimum of 10 days professional development, pro rata, per year for all researchers and to implement open, rather than fixed-term contracts. Universities are publically committed to implementing the Concordat Principles. The Concordat encourages the sector to move researchers from fixed term contracts to open contracts; this change in status allows a number of benefits including enabling senior researchers to be eligible to apply for independent awards.

Like many HEIs, our universities have been early recipients of the Vitae HR Excellence in Research Awards, which publicly commits universities to enhanced research career development opportunities, improved systems and inclusive cultures. A recent study of research culture from the Wellcome Trust (2020) found that researchers were passionate and proud of their work, but they had concerns about their job security. This is a particular issue for women and minority groups, who are more likely to hold fixed-term contracts (Vitae, 2019). This is of interest to CoDH whose health science faculties tend to have a greater proportion of female academics.

The Wellcome study of over 4000 researchers identified unhealthy competition, lack of people management training and pressure to produce results as challenges.

‘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.” Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome.

It has been suggested that challenges such as securing internal resources and leadership opportunities disproportionately affect female academics and could account for the disparities in grant funding (Witteman et al, 2019).

We need to grasp the opportunities to fulfil the commitment of our universities to enhance our research cultures. This includes actively implementing the principles of the Vitae Researcher Development Concordat and the Athena Swan Charter.

One such example is the Research Leadership Academy developed by Prof Harries; she co-designed the course with her research colleagues at the Kingston University and St. George’s Joint Faculty. The Academy, RISE 2020, incorporated research leadership journeys; expert led discussions on topics such as strategy, impact, collaboration, policy development and mentorship as well as more practical sessions on costing grants and project management. Individual mentorship was included. Visits to Centres of Research Excellence and action learning sets were planned but not possible due to the pandemic. The Academy was well received and will run again, hopefully in its entirety.

Other examples include the expansion of researcher training programmes such as Epigeum, which provide easy access to training on transferrable skills. Flexible routes to learning have become even more important during the pandemic, with many academics having additional caring commitments, and the move to flexible online fora could be a valuable lesson that we take forward into the post-Covid research environment.

Creating a sense of community is challenging, particularly when academics are at a distance. Innovative methods, such as Bournemouth University’s award-winning Research Blog, can support researchers to engage and bring a sense of community.

At the School of Health Sciences at Southampton, the ways in which a supportive research culture is fostered include a Faculty Concordat Champion together with a School Early Career Research (ECR) Concordat representative. ECRs are integrated within School executive and operational committees and groups, with a team of ECRs acting as members. An annual ECR survey highlights career development needs and training, which is co-developed and delivered within the School in addition to cross-University training and on-line resources focused on skills aligned to the Vitae Researcher Development Framework. The School also has a designated ECR resource and meeting room to support ECR communications on policies, events and practices together with a bespoke SharePoint site.

We invite colleagues to share good practice and initiatives that have been inspired by key policy drivers and our own commitment to creating positive research environments.

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