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Why people and culture matter in research

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

10 August 2021

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Following last year’s R&D Roadmap, the UK Government has now published an R&D People & Culture Strategy, which sets out its intention to build the research and innovation workforce in the UK, along with the positive and inclusive culture it needs to thrive.

The strategy sets out a bold ambition to make the UK the best destination in the world for researchers. It explains how the Government intends to work with organisations across the sector to drive change, including encouraging more young people into research, broadening career pathways and improving research culture.

Key points in the strategy

The document is a call to action to create “a more inclusive, dynamic, productive and sustainable UK R&D sector in which a diversity of people and ideas can thrive.”

To meet this ambition, the strategy focuses on three areas:

People: Redefining what it means to work in R&D in the 21st century – valuing all the roles that make it a success and ensuring the UK has the capability and capacity it needs.

  • To match Government ambitions, the R&D sector will need at least an additional 150,000 researchers and technicians by 2030 to sustain the UK’s target of 2.4% research intensity.
  • Create a positive working environment and address career precarity – particularly for women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Ensure careers are rewarding and offer long-term prospects for people at every stage of their careers and lives.
  • Support the development of leadership skills at all career levels.
  • Ensure the sector tackles issues of skills shortages, narrow research career paths and variable leadership quality.
  • Develop a New Deal for postgraduate research students, starting later in 2021 with a cross-sectoral consultation led by UKRI.


Culture: Co-creating a vision of the culture the Government want to see within the sector, building on existing commitments and action in collaboration across the UK R&D sector – working to make lasting change happen so that researchers and innovators with diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking can thrive and do their best work in the UK.

  • Ensure assessment frameworks encourage positive research cultures – these are currently seen as a key contributing factor to the current concerns about research culture in the UK.
  • Tackle bullying and harassment, which has been noted as a significant problem by many academic researchers. In a 2019 survey, bullying and harassment were rated as having the most negative influence on research integrity.
  • Faster progress is needed in closing the gender gap. In terms of inclusion, significant gender, race and disability inequalities remain. It highlights the need to work together across the sector to grow the evidence on what works to address underlying causes.
  • Address the cultures and practices which inhibit diversity of thought and drive talented people away from careers in the sector.
  • Consider ways of increasing feedback loops between staff and employers and encourage more transparency around academic satisfaction and working cultures.
  • Tackle the perception that research is the concern only of professional researchers (i.e. seeing R&D as a shared endeavour across society is vital for the health of the sector).


Talent: Renewing the UK’s position as a global leader in R&D in attracting, retaining and developing talented people, making sure careers in UK R&D are attractive to the best individuals and teams both domestically and internationally.

  • Through the creation of the Office for Talent, work will continue to address any barriers and promote the UK as a top destination for talent – this includes launching an online service to attract highly skilled, international talent and making it easier to come to the UK.
  • Renew the UK’s position as a collaborator of choice with a strong, compelling offer to both international and domestic talent.
  • Tackle the failure to develop and support people with potential, and the increased completion for top global talent.
  • Strengthen the evidence base on the barriers associated with moving to the UK and their impact on researchers, their teams and their families, and their career decisions.

We welcome this call to action and acknowledgement of the long-standing issues in the strategy – from bullying and harassment to equality, diversity and inclusion. CRUK also recognise some of the underlying issues to the challenges in the sector, such as racism, bias, prejudice and other forms of discrimination. We will continue to collaborate with the government and others across the sector to support the implementation of this ambitious strategy.

Cancer Research UK has a role to play in building a better research environment, which is why we were pleased to be able to feed into the development of the strategy and share our EDI in research action plan and grant funding diversity data with the team behind it. 

The strategy makes specific recommendations on what short term actions can help with its ambition. We’ve been actively involved in a number of them:

  • Create a good practice exchange (cross-sector partnership) to develop, test, evaluate and highlight ideas to improve culture sourced from the community, bringing together people from across the sector to work creatively. This will look at interventions across talent, bullying and harassment, diversity and inclusion, recruitment, leadership and beyond – CRUK is highlighted in the Strategy , for our existing policy on Dignity at Work in Research to tackle bullying and harassment. We’ve also participated in project on narrative CVs with the Lab for Academic Culture at the University of Glasgow, one of the examples mentioned.
  • Drive adoption of the ‘resume for researchers’ narrative CV, which broadens the range of experiences and accomplishments that are recognised – CRUK plans to build on our existing approach where we already ask our grant applicants to describe their 3-5 key research achievements and our fellowship applicants to outline their skills and experience aligned to our competency framework. We have now signed a joint funder statement expressing our commitment to build on our approach further. 
  • Encourage the recently established Forum for Tackling Bullying & Harassment (of which, CRUK was a founding member) to develop sector-wide definitions for all forms of bullying; and work to establish clear guidelines to inform future policy and action.
  • UKRI will undertake a review of how they use expert peer review – CRUK has recently changed the way we peer review to improve the way we make funding decisions and reduce the burden of written peer review on researchers, sharing our new approach and learnings with UKRI and other research funders.
  • Support Open Access policy, incentivising best practice as part of the wider open research ambition – CRUK engaged on the UKRI Open Access Review; we support Plan S principles and will adopt an immediate open access policy from January 2022.

Read more about CRUK’s framework for research culture

We take our role in addressing these issues very seriously – we know the best way to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured is to support the most inclusive and positive research environments. As leaders in cancer research, we will do this by using our voice to bring about change, remove barriers to research and tackle inequalities.

Latisha Gordon is a Policy Advisor at CRUK