It takes a village to deliver research

Widening participation and recognising and rewarding the efforts of everyone is key to building a better and more resilient research and innovation system.

Behind every ‘lone genius’ stands a team of contributors. We fund more full time equivalents (FTEs) of technician roles directly on our grants than we do principal investigators, and we fund more researcher FTEs than all our other roles put together.

This is just those funded directly; the indirect costs on our grants, and Quality Related funding distributed by Research England support a huge range of cross-cutting and underpinning capabilities. Yet often these team members are rarely recognised as much as they should be.

Changing what we reward can break down silos and reduce tunnel vision

Our reward, recognition and career structures can be racehorse blinkers, encouraging tunnel vision as we chase the few outputs for which we have measures, such as research papers, and neglecting those we don’t measure. Not only is this immense pressure on those individuals, it can encourage a view that only the principal investigator, and perhaps their core researchers, matter.

This can sometimes lead to fragmentation and atomisation of the research landscape into silos around disciplines, sub-disciplines and individual research groups. We have limited opportunity for connectivity and crosstalk, especially for those at the coal face who don’t have time to look up and see how their work fits into the wider research and innovation system.

Those not clearly on the inside of a silo can feel unrecognised for a contribution that we may not even measure.

Precarious careers and a precarious system

We’ve built a system where research groups sometimes act as their own small business inside an institution. And this leads to a very particular set of weaknesses.

Employment contracts have become linked to individual research grants, with research staff often highly dependent on their principal investigator for career progression, or even their continued employment.

Group leaders are often not equipped to support their staff into anything other than an academic career, and we know most research staff do not end up there.

We also know such precarious employment and power imbalances can in some cases lead to bullying, harassment and discrimination. Such structural factors further compromise the integrity of our research, despite the strong intrinsic motivation of our researchers and innovators.

Rigid silos and the tunnel vision of writing the next research paper make our system more brittle. Staff are specialised within their research niche and have limited experience of other contexts, reducing their capability and resilience. Staff are also often the responsibility of individual grant holders rather than the institution, putting pressure on group leaders to get the next grant to keep their staff employed.

At the same time, we don’t value enough the underpinning, supporting and specialist roles that could streamline many administrative processes, provide a backstop against some common integrity and reproducibility issues, and bring specialist knowledge and expertise to the problem at hand.

Promoting all jobs that change the world

There are areas of good practice and huge progress in recognising the many roles we need for research. Our own 101 jobs that change the world campaign aims to highlight the diversity of exciting roles in the system.

Our amazing community has also rallied around grass roots efforts such as the Technician Commitment, which Research England have supported with funding for the TALENT programme and the recently announced Institute for Technical Skills and Strategy. As evidenced by the policy outputs of the TALENT programme, efforts like these enhance the work environment of our researchers and innovators, bringing fresh perspectives and helping to bring down silos and cultural barriers.

Right place, right time

The history of scientific discovery and lists of Nobel Prize winners are both littered with serendipity. Someone in the right place at the right time, looking at a problem from a new perspective, will see things the rest of us won’t.

We miss these extraordinary insights if we stick to our silos and fail to build greater connectivity structurally into research and innovation. UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) strategy aims to engineer these connections into how we work as a sector, making it more likely there will be a diversity of perspectives in the room and ideas can spark off each other.

Building capability, capacity, and resilience

We’ve recently published our people and teams action plan to bring together our efforts to support our researcher and technical communities, stemming from the recognition that both faced similar issues in how non-academic roles are valued. We will encourage research organisations to diversify their staffing models, to develop more underpinning and cross-cutting roles, and to better define and build careers.

This is about providing the right incentives through our funding decisions, ensuring that where we invest has the right culture and structures in place to produce robust, high-integrity and high-quality research. It is equally about examining our own processes and policies to ensure they don’t present a barrier to those organisations already making progress.

We will support a wider range of people and teams to participate in research through valuing the expertise, perspectives and connections people bring with them. And we will recognise the value of the networks they build in connecting silos and disparate parts of the sector.

In the meantime, I ask those of you who may find yourself peer-reviewing one of our funding applications to consider the influence of the environment on the project team and therefore the impact of the work to its ultimate beneficiaries. Ask yourself: ‘Will everyone here have a career, or even a job, if the hypothesis turns out to be wrong or if this can’t get published?’

Top image:  Credit: UKRI

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