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Research culture from a technical point of view

  • 9 November 2022
  • By Dr Sarah Bennett

Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Funding was awarded by Research England in 2020 for ‘TALENT’ – a transformation programme to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers. The TALENT Commission report was published in 2022. 

HEPI is running a series of blogs with Midlands Innovation championing the role of technicians in higher education and research. In this post, Dr Sarah Bennett, Research Technology Facility Manager, School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick explains how technical staff are involved in research culture, progress that is underway and what remains to be tackled.

Exploring Research Culture – A Technician’s Perspective 

Research culture is a hot topic of discussion, particularly after Wellcome published its report What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In. This highlighted the specific challenges in research culture that affect the research community. While there are commonalities between the challenges felt by researchers and those impacting technical staff, there is also a need to recognise that technical staff have certain research culture challenges that need addressing.

Technical staff are vital to higher education’s teaching and research, carrying out a diverse range of roles from setting up our undergraduate laboratories, through handling research data to ensuring our buildings are maintained for operation. These roles mean that technical staff are as equally impacted by cultures built up around research as those on the traditional research pathway. 

As a manager of a research technology facility I collaborate with a range of researchers, both at the University of Warwick and elsewhere on a daily basis. My team trains researchers on complex instruments, provides application support and helps with data interpretation. This directly feeds into research publications and grant applications. 

In the background, our technicians ensure the facility is well maintained, instrument downtime is minimised and health and safety rules are complied with. I am also involved in the strategic direction of shared facilities, working with senior management to ensure a good culture of equipment sharing. 

Our role exposes us to the whole of the University community and as a result, the research culture across different clusters. Often users of the facility see us a confidant, revealing to us some of the negative culture they experience and at other times we personally experience research culture challenges.   

What is happening to improve research culture?

There has been a lot of work to highlight issues related to research culture, how this impacts technical staff and to make recommendations to the sector, but is any progress being made? 

From my experience positive changes have begun and much more is in progress.

  • The launch of the Technician Commitment in 2017 has shone a welcome spotlight on technical staff and the need for institutions to consider sustainability, recognition, visibility and career development opportunities for this group.
  • One positive we have seen is groupings of universities working together to share challenges and best practice, forming technical networks, such as those seen across the Midlands Innovation (MI) partnership.
  • In early 2022, the Research England funded TALENT programme published The TALENT Commission, with 16 overarching recommendations to the sector, many of which link to improving research culture for technical staff. Furthermore, in September 2022, TALENT launched the Research Culture: A Technicians Lens, with six recommendations focussed on tackling research culture challenges.

The MI partnership published a joint statement with ten commitments from its eight university partner employersThis included ensuring technical staff could be recognised as authors on papers and named on proposals, representation of the technical voice on committees and piloting new opportunities for progression. These commitments are welcome and, while it is recognised that some will take longer than others to happen, the visible commitment helps build confidence that changes will occur.

At the University of Warwick, there has been notable progress in ensuring the technical voice is heard. For example, technical staff have been invited onto our institutional Research Committee, and I was invited to be a technical representative for our Research Culture Forum, chaired by our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research). This provides technical staff with an opportunity to raise any concerns related to their community, while inputting into and challenging decision-making processes.

Improving recognition

Through the TALENT: Technician Led Equipment Sharing project we have been demonstrating the importance of the technical experts by giving them the visibility and responsibility of driving the equipment sharing agenda across the eight MI institutions. 

This has resulted in successful cross-institutional projects, with joint publications in progress. We have also worked collaboratively to produce a brochure highlighting over 70 facilities across MI, with a focus on capabilities and contactable technical expertise, rather than just listing instrument models. It is obvious that the sector is moving towards better sharing of capabilities, resources and expertise, which has clear sustainability benefits, return on investment and quality of data outputs; it makes sense that technical staff take ownership of this agenda.

Linked to this, technical staff are generally getting better recognition on journal articles and funding applications. Some of this has been achieved through institutional Technician Commitment action plans, putting in place fair attribution guidelines for publishing locally, with further recommendations related to this in The TALENT Commission

Significant steps have been made possible by funders and several funding initiatives across the UKRI portfolio now ask specific questions around how technical staff development has been considered and, where appropriate, enable technical staff to be principal investigators. Not only this, but we are also seeing technical staff go on to achieve success in calls such as EPSRC Strategic Equipment, the BBSRC Alert and the MRC Mid-Range Equipment. For staff running facilities, this is a major opportunity for career development, enhancing visibility and reputation within their institution and gaining more control over the resources they have in their laboratories.

Creating opportunities for progression

These changes and increased visibility are very welcome but there is more work to do. A focus on career pathways, progression and equality, diversity and inclusivity related to technical staff are just a few of the larger, complex areas needing addressing. For example, giving technicians a voice, responsibility and leadership opportunities is the first step, but these extra efforts need to be rewarded.  

At a recent National Research Technical Professional Network event, the overarching concern from Technicians was the lack of promotional opportunities or waiting to ‘step into dead men’s shoes’.  

If this does not change, there will continue to be a drain of technicians from the university sector, as technicians, now bolstered by their new skills, responsibility and confidence, seek progression elsewhere. 

However, given progress at Warwick, within MI and nationally, there is momentum to help us address these challenges in the near future, making the Technical pathway an attractive, rewarding and respected career.

Last week, HEPI published an important new paper on research leadership by Professor Matthew Flinders.

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