Questioning research culture

Earlier this week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched the report of its enquiry into scientific research culture. I was invited to respond to the report at the launch event, and this post is a summary of my comments.

The Nuffield Council’s report on research culture is an important piece of work. It tackles important questions for research policy-makers, in general, and for the development and shaping of proposals for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF). As the report acknowledges the REF is one of the influences on research culture, and, of course, these effects are part of the considerations that need to be taken into account.

The question of research culture is also a fascinating one for me personally. As a researcher-turned-policy-maker I have thought about these questions from a range of perspectives. It is an issue of complexity and, for me, one of considerable academic interest, but also an area where we need to be able to find pragmatic solutions. I am currently investigating some these questions as an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy(CSaP) at the University of Cambridge, and my reflections on the report are in part informed by the thinking that has resulted from my own research for the fellowship.

The report will be a key contribution to the debate about research culture. The evidence collected as part of the inquiry, and summarised in the report, provides a robust assessment of the perceptions of the scientific community about the culture within which they work. It tells us how it feels to be a scientist in the UK today, how the policy, institutional and individual imperatives combine to make our research culture.

And there is a lot of positives to take away from the report. People see collaboration and working across disciplines as important, and many aspects of the funding and policy environment as supportive of these aspects of research. The open research agenda – open access to publications, open data, and working with people and groups from outside the academy – are valued, and are seen to be moving in the right direction. There is also support for the value and necessity of ensuring the benefits of research are delivered to society.

Of course there are perceived challenges too. Career progression and development, and the related issue of ensuring the diversity of the research workforce are familiar areas of focus. There is also evidence of a disconnect between researchers and the policy environment in which they sit, with both misconceptions of policy requirements and mistrust of their implementation.

In addressing these and other challenges it is welcome that the report acknowledges that the drivers are both external, from the research and institutional policy environment, and inherent in some of the behaviours and practices of researchers themselves. So it follows that the solutions are also shared by all the actors. To coin a phrase, we really are all in it together.

As I read the report, and in wider discussions I have been having as part of my CSaP fellowship, I was struck by a central theme. Within the research environment there are a number of tensions or oppositions that need to be worked out for a successful research culture. These include:

  • collaboration and competition;
  • whether research is inspired by researchers or inspired by potential uses and the wider needs of society;
  • a focus on single discipline as opposed to multi- or inter-disciplinary research;
  • whether objectives should be short-term or long-term.

All of these tensions are characterised by the need to find the appropriate balance. They represent a spectrum of options, and I would argue that for all of them the extremes are not desirable. Take competition and collaboration. The report presents important positive aspects of both attributes. Collaboration is valuable, but the complete absence of competition would lead to lower quality research.

If we accept that the research culture challenge is finding the correct balance between these tensions, I think this raises three questions:

  • What is the current balance point?
  • Who decides what the correct balance should be?
  • What steps should we take to alter the balance if necessary?

The first – What is the current balance point? – is one where the Nuffield report makes an important contribution, providing evidence on the perceptions of researchers on these important issues. But this evidence is not complete. While I would agree, as it states in the forward to the report, that:

It is the people engaged in scientific research who are in the best position to tell us what it is like to be a researcher

There is another side to the question. We need an external view, provided by social science, of how these tensions are being resolved within the academy. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published an assessment of the features that lead to a productive research culture earlier this year. And at HEFCE we are currently planning a study to examine the factors that have resulted in strong performance in the current REF. However, I think further work is needed to improve our understanding of the current position.

My second question – Who decides what the correct balance point should be? – is an equally important one. Of course the academy itself will have a view, and again the Nuffield report provides evidence to illuminate the views of researchers on what they see as the optimum culture. Wider society may take a different view, which we also need to understand and balance with the views of researchers. For example, people outside of the academy may place a greater emphasis on research aimed at application. In response, researchers might point out that history tells us that some undirected research has delivered huge benefits to society. We need a dialogue about these matters, and a resolution that balances all the viewpoints.

Part of the answer in resolving the tensions I have described may depend upon thinking about the best level to attempt resolution. For example, should every researcher attempt to balance fundamental and applied research in their work, or is this balance best addressed by groupings of researchers seeking to achieve the appropriate balance across their portfolio of work?

Once we have resolved my first two questions, and have a sense of where we are, and where we want to be, we can naturally turn to the third question – What steps should we take to alter the balance? As a policy-maker this is the question that falls squarely into my domain, and is a challenging one. The Nuffield report demonstrates the complexity. There are many factors that determine the research culture, and individual policy-makers have limited influences on them. While I can help determine the shape of the next REF, I can’t control how many ‘mock’ exercises a Vice-Chancellor may decide to run, or the performance metrics a university might use to evaluate its staff.

Added to this complexity, is the diverse policy environment with many organisations, within and outside the public sector, making interventions. Undoubtedly, part of the answer is for research funders to work together more, and consider the holistic impact of what we do. But I do worry that this will inevitably lead to more alignment, something we are often exhorted to do. Maybe it would be better sometimes for different funders to have distinct policies that act in different directions and so balance one another? Either way, we should not underestimate the challenge of balancing the inherent (and healthy) tensions that exist within the research culture. In any considerations of changing research policy in the UK we also need to be mindful that we are dealing with a highly successful system by many measures, something we need to protect and nurture.

So, in conclusion, I strongly welcome the Nuffield Councils report. This is a conversation we all need to be having, and this report is the solid foundation on which to build the future analysis and debate.