Research culture: enhancing the environment in which research happens

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being appointed Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Culture. There’s been a great deal of interest in research culture in recent years – from the Royal Society and Wellcome, among others. And last year the UK Government published its Research and Development People and Culture Strategy. But research culture is a difficult concept to define and will mean different things to different people.

It can include how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward, including how we recognise diverse contributions to research and different research career paths. And there isn’t a single research culture– research groups, departments, schools, faculties, institutions and countries – as well as different disciplines – will all have different but overlapping cultures.

So, research culture is complicated; but it’s clearly also important. Those issues of how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward and recognise, impacts on not only our research outputs but also – more importantly – on ourselves as researchers, and our colleagues at all career stages (including the technicians and professional services staff who support research activity). A positive research culture, where people feel valued and rewarded, as well as both challenged and supported, is essential if we are to produce high quality research outputs. It’s also vitally important for attracting and retaining the most talented individuals with values that align with the research culture we aspire to – a vision I hope to co-create with the Bristol community over the next year.

The creation of a role focused on research culture highlights the importance that we place on getting this right. We were also fortunate that this appointment aligned with the award of funding from Research England to “Enhance Research Culture”, which all institutions in England that receive QR funding received. With input from various parts of the University, we identified projects in four broad areas – Understanding Ourselves, Supporting People, Developing Training, and Enhancing Infrastructure. These map on to the priority areas identified in the Research England Circular Letter, and those highlighted in the recent Enhancing Research Culture meeting.

Examples of the areas we’re investing this funding in range from promoting the uptake of ORCiD IDs and providing open access fees for recent postgraduate students, through to support for emerging initiatives, such as the Inclusive Research Collective – which aims to educate researchers about biased and exclusionary practices in research. We’re also piloting an extension of Bristol’s reciprocal mentoring scheme, which challenges – and to some extent inverts – the traditional power dynamic of conventional mentoring schemes. It will be exciting to see how these projects develop, and we’re keen to ensure that at least some can be sustained beyond the initial funded period.

We were also able to allocate a substantial proportion of this funding to small-scale seed funding, which was open to applications from academic and professional services staff at all career stages. This scheme was considerably over-subscribed – testament to the grass-roots enthusiasm for activity in this space. Unfortunately, this meant that we couldn’t fund every proposal, but we were able to fund a number of exciting projects in a range of areas, including several led by postgraduate research students. The hope is that we will be able to secure further funding in the future to support more projects. Until then, this activity will help to foster new and innovative approaches to promoting a positive research culture.

It’s already clear that there’s a great deal of exciting activity across Bristol. Linking that activity together, and supporting it, will be a key part of my new role. Another will be listening to colleagues to better understand what people think we are doing well, what we could do better, and to find out more about what’s already happening. We’ve run a brief survey to begin this process and will be looking at the responses over the next few weeks. I’m keen to hear from anyone who’d like to contribute to this process. If you want to talk about research culture, find about more about what we’re planning, and help us improve how we work, do get in touch!