Position Paper: Supporting and Developing Research Careers

 In order to attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people, the current ‘toxic’ environment needs to be overhauled. As the Wellcome Trust puts it, we need to ‘reimagine’ research. The government should consider formal training for managers, a clear roadmap for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, and awarding funding to groups rather than individuals. 

This position paper is based on our response to the government’s proposals in its R&D Roadmap. Our full response can be found here.

We welcome the Roadmap’s recognition that ‘some parts of R&D exhibit features of an unhealthy work culture, including evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination.’

The Roadmap mentions the important work that the Wellcome Trust has done in highlighting this issue. Its report in January stated that, ‘with the constant pressure to secure grant funding and rolling employment contracts, 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.’

It is essential that we change this culture. In recognition of this, Eastern Arc hosted one of nine national workshops run by the Wellcome Trust to discuss its findings with the sector and to take the initiative forward. We will continue to play an active part in this, and we are already putting in place actions to overcome this ‘toxic’ environment.

Our second strategic objective focuses on supporting experimental, risk-taking activity, and this includes putting in place a cross-institutional mentoring system, so that researchers and academics at all levels can get objective support in identifying and tackling issues they face.

But this is just a first step. To significantly change the culture and attract, retain and develop people to R&D, the government must be proactive. Actions may include:

  • Training for principal investigators (PIs).  In the Wellcome  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.
  • Monitoring of a PI’s performance in supporting early career researchers (ECRs) and others. If it is found to be poor, restricting the PI from accessing future funding.
  • A whistle-blowing process to enable those who are victims of bullying to report their experiences.
  • A more structured and clear roadmap for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers, in line with Vitae’s researcher development framework.

More significantly, the government should consider an alternative structure for awarding grants. Standard funding grants tend to replicate and entrench existing power dynamics. Funding goes to an individual, who then has the power over the work and career of those in their team. The government should consider giving group grants to mitigate the worst effects of this. Alternatively, it should consider making the appointment of a non-academic manager, responsible for career development and line management, a requirement of large grants.