Russell Group sets out proposals to boost working environment and culture in research

04 May 2021

Ensuring a healthy research culture and environment is crucial to attracting and retaining staff, driving a research-led recovery and building the UK’s reputation as a global leader in research, say UK’s top universities.

In Realising Our Potential: Backing Talent and Strengthening UK Research Culture, the Russell Group has set out practical ideas and suggestions to strengthen the working culture and environment for researchers and continue to ensure the UK is one of the best places in the world to do research.

The report aligns with Government priorities in its R&D Roadmap, which commits to developing an R&D People and Culture strategy that will look to ensure the UK is the best place in the world for scientists, researchers and innovators.

Examining the drivers and incentives that shape UK academic research culture, Realising Our Potential calls for universities, funders, publishers and others across the research ecosystem to develop coordinated policies and procedures that support career progression and facilitate a positive and inclusive working environment for all researchers.

As part of this, it calls for a move towards a more stable, long-term funding system for research. This will not only allow more strategic investments in the research base but will also help reduce the unintended pressures created by fixed-term contracts and job insecurity. Ultimately, this will enable researchers to focus on what they do best: tackling challenges such as net zero, improving health and social outcomes across the UK and translating research into innovative new solutions with business.

The report and its recommendations are based on conversations and interviews with close to 100 representatives from universities (including researchers at all career stages), funders and publishers. It is accompanied by a toolkit of suggested ideas based on successful programmes across Russell Group universities and elsewhere to create the best environment for research and researchers to thrive.

Commenting, Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“People are at the heart of what our universities do, and a positive working environment and culture are essential for researchers and, in turn, for research to thrive.

“To ensure we can retain and attract the staff the country needs to drive a research and innovation-led recovery, it is vital we support all staff working in research to realise their potential and pursue a fulfilling career.

“Constantly having to look to the next grant application, pressure to publish and unhealthy levels of competition are some of the factors which create perverse incentives in the research system and ultimately risk undermining the quality and potential impact of the research produced.

“Real change requires collective action and we hope by sharing the good practice we have found across the sector and encouraging others to take it up we can secure the UK’s future as one of the best places in the world to do research.”

As the country’s leading research-intensive universities, home to half of all academics carrying out research at UK higher education institutions, Russell Group universities have a central role to play in driving a positive research culture and environment.

Key suggestions identified in the toolkit include:

• Improving long-term contractual job security for researchers, including through boosting quality-related ‘QR’ block grant funding for universities (and its equivalents in the devolved nations), and considering options to lengthen research grant funding periods and academic contracts.

• Support for career progression, recognition and reward, including sufficient time for professional development, improving feedback provided by managers, funders and publishers, preparation for a range of career options, and ensuring evaluation, recognition and reward systems consider the wide range of activities that contribute to an internationally excellent research environment.

• Enhancing the experience of working in research, including more recognition from funders and employers for management and leadership skills, reduced bureaucracy for researchers, access to support networks, and involving early career researchers more actively in decision making.

• Creating inclusive and respectful environments, including dedicated schemes for those from underrepresented backgrounds and appropriate EDI-related training for decision makers, transparent reporting and investigation processes, and trialling alternative models of research groups with flatter structures.

Realising our Potential offers universities, funders and publishers practical ideas to support researchers’ wellbeing, career development and research productivity. Drawing on good practice across the UK research system, the new toolkit will help give the UK a global competitive advantage and recruit and retain the very best researchers from the UK and beyond.

All Russell Group universities are committed to using the toolkit to share good practice, enhance supportive and positive research cultures, and to review and reflect on progress after 12 months.

Grace Gottlieb, Head of Research Policy at UCL and one of the report authors, said:

“It’s clear that appetite to promote a healthy research culture is strong and growing across the sector. This presents us with a prime opportunity to harness this widespread appetite and translate it into real change that can be felt and appreciated by researchers on the ground.

“By sharing the varied suggestions in this toolkit – drawn from expertise and best practice across the sector – we hope to arm stakeholders and decision makers with ideas and inspiration for how they can make a difference to the culture in research. We look forward to working cooperatively with others to advance this important agenda.”

Amanda Solloway, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation said: 

"R&D will be crucial to helping the UK build back better after the effects of the pandemic and in building a bolder and brighter future for everyone. Therefore, it is vital that those seeking rewarding careers in working on the most important global challenges, feel empowered and enthusiastic about doing so.

"The Government has made R&D a key priority and as part of the R&D Roadmap committed to developing a People and Culture strategy that will look to ensure the UK is the best place in the world for scientists, researchers and innovators.

"That is why I am really pleased to see the Russell Group are taking steps to look at how we create conditions for researchers to thrive, to collaborate, and to succeed – making sure the UK continues to lead the world in research and innovation."

Realising Our Potential - Full Report

Realising Our Potential: Backing Talent and Strengthening UK Research Culture and Environment - Full report

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Realising Our Potential - Case Studies

Examples of work to improve research culture being carried out by each of our 24 members, which aligns with the principles laid out in the Realising Our Potential report and toolkit.

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Research Culture and Environment Toolkit

Practical ideas and suggestions for universities, funders and publishers, based on research conducted for the Realising Our Potential report

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