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Iain Foulkes: Pursue research excellence in a positive research culture

Dr Iain Foulkes
by Iain Foulkes | Research Feature

21 January 2020

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Researchers applauding


Dr Iain Foulkes is Cancer Research UK’s Executive Director of Research and Innovation. Given the issues highlighted by some researchers in a new survey, Iain believes it is incumbent on us all – funders, research institutions and individual researchers – to ensure a positive research culture, where research excellence, effective mentoring and good people management are essential starting points.

The Wellcome survey on research culture highlights important issues in today’s research environment. Abusive and bullying behaviour is unacceptable, and this is why Cancer Research UK issued new policies a year ago to tackle bullying and harassment in the research workplace and to create equal, diverse and inclusive research environments. It is incumbent on everyone – funders, research institutions and individual researchers – to ensure we foster a positive environment and culture, where everyone can fulfil their potential in undertaking world-class research. Poor behaviour can’t go unchecked.

It is incumbent on everyone – funders, research institutions and individual researchers – to ensure we foster a positive environment and culture, where everyone can fulfil their potential in undertaking world-class research.

We now need a careful analysis and debate before conclusions can be drawn on the underlying causes of these latest findings from Wellcome. Human behaviour is obviously complex and there won’t be a single issue underpinning what has been reported. 

I recognise that the research environment can be competitive; it is also passionate and stressful. It always has been, as a trawl through the great rivalries of science would support. Many scientists are undeniably motived to discover answers to hitherto unanswered questions – in doing so comes prestige and typically more funding. Great collaborations and team science are possible too. Here at Cancer Research UK we are advocates for both, and a focus on excellence is also common to both.

Pursuing research excellence should not necessarily lead to a bullying culture. Competition for funding – a mechanism for distributing scarce resource – shouldn’t either.

Of course, in terms of outcome, such a mechanism creates winners and losers. This makes plurality of funding opportunity essential to ensure those outcomes aren’t absolute. However, in a world of scarce resource, funders such as CRUK need a way of distributing it. If we don’t use excellence, as judged by scientific peers (and most funders don’t just use excellence), as a criterion, we need to figure out what we replace it with. A lack of emphasis on excellence can lead to poor science, poor culture (including bullying), and loss in trust from those who support the research endeavour. It will be important to assess the role of competition on culture, and whether, for example, grant success rates and prevalence of bullying or poor mental health are correlated. 

Arguably, there are aspects of the research culture that make it unique and which we don’t see in other sectors. Scientific critique is essential to scientific progress. But that critique is not typically aimed at something one can quantitatively measure as good or bad, like the quality of a manufactured widget, or hitting a sales target. It’s a critique of someone’s idea or their idea executed through experimentation. That makes science personal. We must train researchers in how to give and receive that critique effectively. The best labs and institutions producing excellent research outputs (and, from my experience, typically the ones with a positive and healthy culture), train scientists exceptionally well in this and other regards. They have robust mechanisms to deal with performance, and positive approaches to mentoring and management. 

We must take the issue of culture seriously – the world needs more scientists, not fewer. In doing so we need to investigate the root causes of the problems where they exist, understand the behavioural and social dynamics of research workplaces and provide well-funded environments that enable brilliant minds, in all their diversity, to be just that. More focus should be given to prevention and building cultures where people are free to argue and critique, where people are supported in how to manage, and where bullying is not tolerated. The presence of good people managers and mentors in the research environment can have a huge influence on the wellbeing of researchers and we should ascertain whether we have these at the right level, especially at the early stages of research careers. 

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