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The Black Hole

Early-career researchers need to be the change they want to see

The status quo is not good enough, a new paper concludes.


Earlier this month, I was pleased to see a paper published in PLoS Biology written by a large group of international researchers in the early stages of their careers about how we can improve research culture and practice. While I was one of the participants/authors, the real credit for driving the project goes to Brianne Kent, Constance Holman and Tracey Weissgerber. It was a heroic effort to try to consolidate the views of such a diverse set of researchers, but the process made a very clear point – the status quo is not good enough and early career researchers (ECRs) need to help drive the changes that they want to see in the system. The paper, entitled “Recommendations for empowering early career researchers to improve research culture and practice,” aligns with this message as well by calling on senior researchers and institutions to enable ECRs to be a part of the change.

What is an ECR anyway?

When we first started the Black Hole, we used the word “trainee” quite frequently, but it quickly became apparent that terms like this were poorly received by cohorts of highly trained individuals who still fell into the categories such as postdoctoral fellow or research associate. While ECR still has some issues, it is broadly used in our paper to include “graduate and medical students, young clinical researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and recently appointed independent investigators early in their independent careers.” Practically speaking for this article about empowering change-makers, this term is quite useful as it implies that ECRs are in it for the long haul and have a strong interest in creating a research culture that they will still be a part of. It is critical to gather opinions at the ECR stage and to empower these change-makers with real decision-making input for a number of reasons (listed in the article): 1) they represent a far more diverse community than senior researchers 2) they are generally more optimistic and amenable to change; and 3) they are more recently embedded in many of the key issues.

Why ECRs need to assemble

The system will not fix itself. We’ve written about this so many times before and, as much as it pains us to say it – scientists need to fix the research culture for themselves if things are going to change. The article drives home several key points (paraphrased below) that are excellent reminders for ECRs trying to effect change:

  • Do your homework. Before starting on any culture change project, research what has been done elsewhere and try to learn from common pitfalls or brilliant successes.
  • Start simple. Success breeds success (and failure tends to breed failure!). If you can show that your movement or idea has legs but is a bit small in scale, it becomes a great platform for building. If it is massive and idealistic and fails early, people lose faith. Have ambition, but start small.
  • Choose your team wisely. You will almost certainly need help driving the change you want and there are almost certainly people who want to help you. Find those people, invest in them, share the success, and chase the dream together. Also, try to widen the participation of your team so you don’t build an exclusive system.
  • Anticipate Reviewer 3. No initiative you start will be unanimously supported. It is important to try to map out the potential responses to nay-sayers in advance so you can address concerns head on. Similarly, when faced with tough criticism, try to be resilient – change never happens overnight.
  • Share experiences and plan for the future. One of the drawbacks of the ECR community and advocating for change in specific places is that the community is highly transient. While there is definitely something to be said about learning the pros and cons of different environments, we should not all have to learn these things from scratch. It is therefore critical to share successes (and failures!) of ECR activities in the hope that others can build from where you left off rather than re-invent the wheel.

Institutions need to be supportive

One of the biggest issues around supporting ECRs is mobilizing sufficient and sensible institutional support to give people licence to drive change.  This can come in many different forms and the article nicely summarizes some easy ways (with examples!) of how institutions can start backing their young researchers with a little more oomph.  

  • Reward and incentivize people for their good citizenship. This has always been a tricky one for me as I have historically found that the people doing exceptional citizenship activities (public engagement, policy reform, building positive research culture, lobbying for change, etc.) are most often the same people who aren’t out for recognition or reward. That said, it does become important for those people to accept that rewarding their achievements may help licence the next generation of similarly minded people to think that the institution values this type of activity (and therefore might sanction the dedication of time towards those activities). We reward for so many things, why not for building good research culture?
  • Include new voices in decision-making. As someone who has been both an active ECR on boards as well as a token ECR on committees, I think it is really important that we give new voices the ability to be heard in a meaningful way. In the vast majority of cases, ECRs are pretty firmly in the category of “responsible adult” and should be entrusted to hear and assess both short- and long-term policies without being excluded from voting or observing particular matters. If someone is on a committee, it is worth making it as meaningful as possible – let them speak, let them vote.
  • Provide resources for culture-changing experiments. Similar to the rewards point above, it is important that institutions “put their money where their mouth is” and make resources (financial and administrative) available to ECRs to be able to effect the changes they desire. Carving out small amounts of resource can usually be achieved and the people running these events tend to give back to the community many times over – there are some real trailblazers out there who can do a lot with $1,000.

In the end, it will be a collective effort, but ECRs are often most effective when they find allies in senior positions to help institute the changes they desire. In an ideal world, the more permanent members of staff (tenure track academics, administrative staff, etc.) are looped in so they can be a part of planning for continuity and sharing best practice across the institution and globally. Efforts like this one driven by Brianne, Tracey and Constance deserve a huge amount of attention and recognition for bringing together the perspectives of ECRs across the globe – well done team!

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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