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The Black Hole

Yes to more evaluation, but a bigger yes to more action

A recent report on research culture shows that evaluation is key, but stops short of practical solutions to core problems.


report recently published by Shift Insight, UK Reproducibility Network & Vitae, provides an overview of the types of various research culture initiatives throughout the U.K. and also sets out a framework for understanding these initiatives as collective groups of activities. There is certainly a lot going on in the name of “research culture change” with activities aimed at tackling the core problem of a highly competitive environment and very narrow definitions of success.

The report, entitled Research Culture Initiatives in the UK, sets out three key recommendations, which should resonate with the entire postsecondary education sector:
1) Facilitate collective effort;
2) Enable robust evaluation; and
3) Develop mechanisms to share best practices.

By far the most attention is paid to research evaluation where it is clear that the vast majority (>90 per cent) of initiatives do not have robust external evaluation processes in place. The report identifies several reasons for this, including the relatively small scale of many activities and the inability to access funding for the costs associated with external evaluation. Irrespective of the reasons for poor evaluation, the report lays down a case for ensuring that future efforts (no matter how small) are equipped with tools to help quantify their impact and share best practices.

While evaluation is clearly important, and the quest to improve it laudable, the report did not offer much  in the way of mapping out the core problems of poor research culture (e.g., what issues need solving) or practical solutions for how to move the dial in the right direction. To me, this represents a real failure to capture people’s imagination about what needs urgent action and which programs across the U.K. are already making progress. Research culture has featured in dozens of large programs over multiple years – what are the wins and how can we replicate them?

The report specifically refers to workshop participants desiring “momentum and vision on research culture.” This is in my opinion exactly what the majority of decision-makers are lacking. For example, where is the will to stamp out bullying and harassment from academic culture?  Where is the push to achieve career stability for excellent people on short term contracts? Can we imagine a world where university research staff of all career stages who do their job well are rewarded and properly recognised for their essential contribution to science.

Sometimes it feels like “research culture” is the soup-du-jour for funding agencies, universities and research institutes in the same way that public engagement was for a number of years prior to this.  While a wide range of benefits can come from the investment and allocation of resources to a specific area (as has occurred in the public engagement space), a ticking clock for achieving action is almost always attached.  This makes the next few years absolutely critical for research culture initiatives and researchers need to be leading the call to action. For funders and institutions that believe this is essential, empower early career researchers, make meaningful change to the administrative structures that de-value researcher contributions, and create support staff structures where career progression is intimately linked to research (and researcher) success. We can do this.

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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