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Perceptions of research culture

  • 28 May 2024
  • By Juliana Rinaldi-Semione

The REF: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. That seems like a functional summary of the varied attitudes toward the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that exist within and across institutions. And in the 2023-24 academic year, there has been much ado and additional mixed responses around the new People, Culture, and Environment (PCE) component that will be introduced in REF 2029.

According to UKRI, the term research culture ‘encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated.’ It could be said that the REF has a culture around it all its own, which has sometimes exacerbated the problems of research culture at institutions.

A 2021 report commissioned by Research England found that ‘views on the influence of the REF on academic research and the research community are mixed.’ Positive perceptions – like respondents’ belief that the REF has made research more widely available, increased impact, and increased the number of research outputs – were mixed in with the views that REF has ‘[increased] game-playing’, ‘[decreased] authenticity of research that reflects the … research community’s intellectual interests and [decreased the] novelty of research’. Individual anecdotes abound, too, around research, outputs, and even impact opportunities being disadvantaged because they were not deemed ‘REF-able’.

In the last few years, sector-wide research into the topic of research culture at large has yielded insights that are valuable at this nascent stage of the PCE component. Broadly, evidence shows that there are some positive qualities to UK research culture, but members of the research community consistently articulate a need for culture change.

In 2020, Wellcome published a report illuminating how researchers perceive research culture. It found that ‘there are widespread problems,’ ranging from a fixation on producing a high number of outputs at the expense of research quality and people; to ‘aggressive and harmful’ competition; to lack of job security; to inadequate management and ‘exploitation, discrimination, harassment and bullying’; and the knock-on effects these problems precipitate.

In 2022, the TALENT programme (funded by Research England) conducted further research into how technicians perceive research culture, asking similar questions to those first posed to researchers by Wellcome. TALENT found that, despite technicians’ vital role in shaping research culture, just 30% of respondents felt included ‘as a member of the research community’.

Both the Wellcome and TALENT research asked respondents to describe their current and ideal research cultures. Word clouds published in the reports illustrate notable overlaps between researchers’ and technicians’ responses.

The findings of Wellcome and TALENT’s reports are resonant. Not only are there overlaps between researchers’ and technicians’ descriptions of current and ideal research cultures, but there are similarities between the reported human costs (i.e. wellbeing) and costs to research itself under the status quo. The particular problems of research culture are nuanced and based on a wide variety of factors, but major themes are clear; there is consensus around the need for change in research culture and around a vision for what that change should lead to. If this is true for large numbers of researchers and technicians, might other groups within the research community also be having similar experiences and desiring similar changes?

The PCE component is positioned to challenge the status quo. The UK’s higher education funding bodies want to use REF to ‘shine a light on research culture, to identify and reward healthy research culture, and therefore to drive it in a positive direction.’ PCE may be the key to alleviating some of the negative research culture experiences that researchers and technicians reported, and even the negative experiences around the REF that cyclically contribute to research culture at the local level. Of course, the effectiveness of this will depend partly on whether the PCE indicators resonate meaningfully with a representative cross section of REF stakeholders across the research community. This is one reason that engagement in the PCE pilot and other opportunities for PCE development is so important. These opportunities can ensure that a variety of stakeholder groups – including researchers and technicians – actively help to shape the PCE and, therefore, the items that their institutions will prioritise or spotlight during REF 2029.

Wellcome concluded that ‘achieving a successful research culture will require collective responsibility and change at all levels. Participants said that research culture is best when it is creative, supportive and collaborative – and in making cultural change, these three qualities will be key as well.’ The process by which the PCE component is being formed is one step in that direction with big potential for long-term change.

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  1. Encouraging and positive piece. More about the antecedents of the idea of research culture here, from Gill Evans:

  2. Matt Russell says:

    For me, the root cause of this is that we don’t really teach about and account for human behaviour in scientific practice. I’ve certainly seen the consequences of this everywhere I’ve worked as both an academic researcher and as core facility technical staff. The FAA Aviation Instructors Handbook has whole chapters on it because the impact of not accounting for it is well documented (the PDF is available for free online). People like Tom Stafford and the Research on Research group are looking into this field with respect to scientific research. It feels like a niche area but I think it represents a massive opportunity for improvement, both for people’s wellbeing and for research outputs.

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