What makes a good working environment for researchers?

Team sitting around a table inside a light bulb

[5 min read]

A good working environment often fosters motivation, enthusiasm, creativity, and efficiency among employees and there have been many studies that validate this theory.

For researchers, a positive research culture is vital to ensuring that all employees feel valued, supported and listened to and is intrinsically linked with better research.  Cancer Research UK have described a positive research culture as ‘a foundation for world-class science.’ It is also considered the most influential predictor of research productivity.

What is research culture?

The Royal Society states that “Research culture encompasses the behaviours, values, expectations, attitudes and norms of our research communities. It influences researchers’ career paths and determines the way that research is conducted and communicated.”

Essentially, research culture describes the environment in which research happens. It is made up of multiple components, which in simplified terms include the attitudes, behaviours and values of staff (at all levels), expectations, processes and provision of facilities.

How can we improve research culture?

Unfortunately, research culture is often not at its best.

It’s difficult to know where to start, but implementing small, practical changes daily can have a large impact on the research culture of an organisation.

  1. Encouraging open conversation

Arguably, the most fundamental aspect of research culture is communication.

Having clear and constructive dialogue can help researchers build respect and trust between each other and boost morale within the team.

Providing a safe space for staff to receive counselling, coaching and support services can help reduce the pressure and stress that often exists in a research environment. Just having an awareness of the support available can be reassuring.

It’s also important for team leaders to encourage and facilitate conversations that involve researchers sharing their ‘failures’ as well as successes. Simply taking the time to ask their team for feedback regarding challenges, mistakes and progress can have a significant impact on their mental well-being.

  1. Supporting mental health

Sadly, the number of researchers who experience mental health struggles is incredibly high.

In January 2020, the Wellcome Trust carried out a survey on more than 4,000 UK and global researchers to gain perspectives on experiences of research culture.

Unfortunately, 61% had witnessed bullying or harassment and 53% sought or considered professional help for depression or anxiety.

Mental health has become less stigmatised in recent years, but it is still not talked about often enough. Encouraging open dialogue and checking up on fellow researchers can help support these individuals.

  1. Collaboration, not competition

According to the Wellcome Trust report, 78% of researchers think that the high levels of bullying and harassment are a consequence of ‘high levels of competition.’

While competition can drive performance, high levels can be destructive, leading to a dysfunctional team. Promoting a collaborative environment can help evade these unhealthy conditions and enhance the success of research output.

This can be achieved by prioritising team meetings and social gatherings to help the team connect and build a foundation of trust. Team leaders can encourage team engagement wherever possible, so the team feel their input is valued and rewards should focus on team effort, as opposed to meriting individual success.

  1. Inclusive environment

For optimal research culture, considerations of equality, diversity and inclusion must be embedded within it.

Minority groups are too often overlooked and have fewer opportunities than their peers.

We must eliminate bias. Perpetuating an inclusive environment ensures that each individual is treated fairly and provided an equal opportunity to progress, particularly as job security is a common fear within research.

US engineer, researcher and co-founder of Moderna, Professor Robert Langer, strongly advocates diversity, ‘diversity of any kind in your background is a plus. The more people come at things with different perspectives, the better for solving big problems.’

In July 2021, the Government published the Research and development (R&D) people and culture strategy, which is a call to action for the sector with the vision that ‘careers in research and innovation are open to people from all backgrounds, working within environments that nurture and get the best out of them.’

With this strategy in place, the UK has a roadmap towards diversifying talent within the research community.

G(rowing) a healthy research culture

Our chief executive, James Parry, had the opportunity to speak with Professor of Metabolic Physiology, Leanne Hodson, who presented a webinar on research culture. She shared how her rowing experience has enhanced her understanding of a good research environment.

Here are some of the important factors and considerations discussed:

  • Fostering good research culture is an ongoing process – it takes time and can’t be taken for granted
  • Built on respect, trust and honesty
  • Encourages people to talk to others to actively pursue solutions (and have difficult conversations)
  • Acknowledges work and personal life overlap
  • Encourages an environment that is collaborative and not competitive, productive and fun

Final thoughts

Improving research culture does not solely fall on individual organisations, it requires a sector-wide movement. It can be achieved through small practical steps, implemented daily.

To make a change, team leaders need support and training to put the above into practice. They should also be open to reverse mentoring and be critical of their own behaviour. You can visit our new resources for principal investigators for additional support on how team leaders can improve research culture.

We believe that inclusivity is a fundamental part of research to ensure all team members are equally valued, heard and listened to. Additionally, managing expectations, at all stages of the research career pathway is also required to evade harbouring a competitive environment.

For more information, please get in touch with us at info@ukrio.org or call us on 020 3828 1325.

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