Over the past two years, the Royal Society has been actively questioning the culture around research through conferences, workshops, and case studies, culminating in this week’s conference ‘Research Culture: changing expectations’. Their goal? To tackle science’s ‘wicked problems’ – from the pressure to publish and ignoring negative results, to bullying, harassment, and the preponderance of the careers of researchers who happen to be women, from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, or who have caring responsibilities, to be stalled or stopped.
The line-up of speakers was impressive. The great and the good from the Royal Society, including their current President Venki Ramakrishnan, were joined by a contingent from UKRI – Sir Mark Walport, David Sweeney, and Sir John Kingman – and a refreshingly gender-balanced range of speakers and panelists. Dame Julia Slingo, former Chief Scientist at the Met Office, was a particularly inspired opening plenary, setting the tone with a focus on creativity, sensitivity and inclusion, not words usually heard in the context of research policy.
However, I defy anyone not to feel a rush of impostor syndrome when walking through those hallowed doors. As David Sweeney pithily suggested, perhaps the Royal Society is not the best place to discuss research culture. It is after all the pinnacle for the ‘1%’ of researchers who manage to climb that high. Despite commendable efforts to diversify the paintings on the walls, it remains a very white, very male, very middle-aged institution.
That aside, there were some bold ideas and much to mull over. The groundswell was palpable; in fact you can watch the entire conference on YouTube to witness that for yourself. Here are my three takeaways:
People are everything
Ignore the humanity around you at your peril. Accept that people have lives beyond the lab, have babies, parents, partners, will need time to think, to recover, to create. Accept that one person’s idea of success may be different from your own. Not being sensitive to that simply perpetuates a system where people suffer for their science, forcing those less experienced to go through the same ‘initiation’ out of a false belief that that’s just what happens. Research misses out on the talents and abilities and insights from those it excludes. We must do better not just to diversify but to actively include.
Teams, not superstars
Only rewarding those that reach the highest heights encourages a hyper competitive culture that doesn’t function and promotes a bare-faced fallacy. Individual superstars or ‘lions’ can provide incredible insights, but it is rare, and in reality not something they achieve on their own. Research is a system that goes beyond the academy, it includes industry, technicians, students, specialists, practitioners; they all play a role which should be recognised. Scholarly publishing desperately needs to catch up with this reality and change it’s proprietary business model. Funders need to look hard at what they actually encourage, intentionally or otherwise.
Science is dead; long live scienza!
A conference on research culture that doesn’t reflect on research in disciplines beyond STEM is missing the point. Sir Paul Nurse and Lord Stern, Research England, UKRI etc all emphasise the need to better recognise interdisciplinary research, and to find better ways to reward different types of research, whether applied, translational, industry-led, or blue skies. It makes the scientific endeavour richer, more relevant to society, and better able to tackle the complex problems global society is facing. This italophile couldn’t resist the nod to language – science is bigger than a discipline, it is an approach to understanding. Let us as a group get our nomenclature sorted – silos don’t help us.
I sincerely hope that some change happens as a result of the rich conversations at Research Culture. There were plenty of individuals with the talent and capacity to enact change – and indeed I look forward to receiving my postcard of challenges I set myself on the day.
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