How would you fix research culture?

Wellcome is working to #reimagineresearch - find out how you can help by discussing with your colleagues and sharing your ideas

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Image credit: Thomas S. G. Farnetti/Wellcome

By Natalie Hunter & Ben Bleasdale, UK & EU Policy Team, Wellcome

Exit interviews for PhD students and postdocs. Overhauling authorship conventions. Mandatory training for supervisors. These are just a handful of the suggestions shared by the research community on our online research culture ideas hub.

Building on the findings of our Reimagine Research survey, this ideas hub invites those working in research – at all levels, in all roles – to propose their own solutions to research culture challenges. Ideas can be viewed, commented on, and upvoted, allowing the research community to lead the conversation and tell organisations such as Wellcome where action is needed.

Many of the ideas grew from our Town Hall events, hosted in partnership with universities across the UK. These events brought together those involved in research to discuss and develop ideas on how to improve research culture. However, we knew that these Town Halls could only reach a fraction of the community. So, to offer a flexible way for everyone to contribute, we developed our Café Culture kits.

We designed our Café Culture kits to act as a facilitator-in-a-box – helping to lead a discussion towards specific actions to take. We know it’s easy to become immersed in the problems of research culture, without asking “What will make this better?”. The kits help groups to delve through the layers of research culture: starting with the problems, then identifying root causes, and finally suggesting actions and allocating responsibility. If you’re keen to read more about what we’ve learned from designing the kits, take a look at our blog about the experience.

The first batch of Café Culture kits was dispatched in January, with over 450 kits sent to people across the UK during the following months. Then in March, everything changed. Universities and research institutions closed their doors, and many in the research community found themselves working remotely. Where would Café Culture fit in this new world?

The kits were built for in-person group meetings, but now video calls were the only option for communicating with colleagues. We also saw the pressures of the pandemic translating into new challenges for research culture, with disrupted working patterns, sudden shifts in caring responsibilities, and fears about job security exacerbating long-standing problems. Then there were the shared stories of a renewed focus on kindness, flexibility and care for colleagues, all of which shone a light on the collegiality of the research community is at its best. Rather than pause research culture discussions, we wanted to ensure everyone still had a chance to capture their experience of this new way of working – and to help retain best elements for the future.

We returned to the drawing board to recreate the interactivity of in-person Café Culture sessions in a virtual format. After testing lots of options, some very high-tech, we realised we needed to build something simple, familiar and flexible. Working with our design colleagues, we created a Powerpoint version of the kit with moveable cards that can be paired, duplicated and written on. All that’s needed to run a session is a videocall with a nominated host sharing their screen, allowing participants to collaborate. We tested the new format on Wellcome staff, refined the content, and launched our new virtual Café Culture kits only a few weeks after the shift to home-working began. So far, over 190 people have downloaded the virtual kits from across 13 countries.

These last few months have taught us to be flexible in the face of change. We were planning a Research Culture Summit event in March to launch a series of research culture activities and actions, as well as more Town Hall meetings; all have been postponed. But learning from our experience with Café Culture, we’re reformatting these events to be safe, engaging and more flexible. Shifting to digital platforms comes with benefits too – it allows us to experiment with new types of content, reduce our carbon footprint, draw in a broader audience and range of contributors, and fit our engagement around people’s lives.

We know that research culture will only change if the research community works together. At Wellcome, we’re still focused on building a better research culture, we still want to engage with the community, and we still need your ideas and solutions. We’re listening, so download a Café Culture kit today and be heard.

Natalie Hunter

UK/EU Policy, Wellcome

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