Taking on the system

Emily F. Porth

There is a perceived lack of transparency around how sifting panels at universities determine – which researchers demonstrate enough leadership or success 

Download the published version in Association of Research Managers and Administrators magazine The Protagonist

Research culture is a hot topic right now throughout our sector. Although equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives have been ongoing in universities for more than two decades, recent research – such as the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Reimagine Research’ survey and EPSRC’s report ‘Understanding our Portfolio: a Gender Perspective’ – confirms that many people are failing to thrive in research careers because of systemic problems. 

Evidence Base (eBase) was established at The University of Edinburgh in 2018 to advocate for and implement a systems-based approach to EDI in STEM. Grounded in the recognition that research culture will only improve through strategies that are collaborative and multidisciplinary, eBase was founded by a team comprised of professional services staff from the Institute for Academic Development and academic staff from biology, chemistry, physics and social science. 

Our project, ‘Growing the Big Grant Club’, was one of eleven funded by EPSRC under their Inclusion Matters scheme, and aims to improve career progression, and access to research funding, for physical scientists from marginalised groups. 

REALITY CHECK During more than twenty in-depth interviews with early career researchers who have secured fellowships and leadership development, as well as with people who manage such programmes and those who were responsible for their creation, several important themes emerged. Caring responsibilities were a significant theme for many early career researchers. Parents of all genders are struggling with the cost of childcare, travelling to work and exhaustion. 

Workload was another important theme; a heavy administrative burden means researchers’ time is fragmented and they lack the head space to consider the long-term vision for their work that is required by funding proposals. Mid-career academics who had a career break (mostly women) feel particularly disadvantaged because they often end up overwhelmed by teaching and committee work. They lose momentum in their research career and feel unable to successfully apply for funding again. 

Mentoring was also a significant theme and to early career researchers it is vital for building confidence and networks, while also helping them to write winning funding applications. All too often, simply feeling networked and connected to colleagues seems to translate into career success, whereas people of all genders who feel disconnected from their research community (often due to caring responsibilities) are discouraged to exploit opportunities. 

Interviewees across career stages are generally cynical about the rhetoric around research leadership, and definitions of success and leadership are not desirable or achievable for many researchers. Although institutions feel they work hard to select fairly, there is a perceived lack of transparency around how internal sifting panels at universities determine – in the context of funding – which researchers demonstrate enough ‘leadership’ or ‘success’. As Dr Kieran Fenby- Hulse notes in the last issue of The Protagonist, “EDI work shows that current notions of success and excellence are flawed, layered with historical prejudices, assumptions and discriminatory practices.” 

None of these findings are surprising, but it was not all negative. In addition to the narratives I heard about the significance of mentors, I also heard about the importance of ‘lovely people’, in the form of Research Managers and Administrators. These supportive colleagues helped early career fellows with a range of things, from answering a key question so they could submit their funding application, to explaining how to manage a project budget. 

We cannot, however, simply rely on lovely people to be there for processes to work or doors to be opened. Individuals should not be solely responsible for fostering a good research culture. Instead, a systems approach involves changing organisational processes to remove the bias and barriers to career progression which disproportionately affect people from marginalised groups. 

COLLABORATE AND LISTEN Having identified many of the challenges within research culture, we began to work collaboratively with those who understood how ‘the system’ works at the University of Edinburgh. Our objective was to identify where there were opportunities to change policies and processes, and thereny create the greatest impacts for EDI. I partnered with Jean O’Donoghue, EDI lead in the School of Chemistry, to interview professional services staff in various parts of the university. These interviews have been instrumental in helping us to understand how processes work across the university system, and whose interventions may be in line with the reduced resources available during the ongoing pandemic. 

We now have the information to consider interventions and develop strategies to implement them. One of the policy interventions we’re hoping to incorporate through HR is a ‘part-time working assurance scheme’, which would allow staff to temporarily drop to part-time hours and return to full-time hours after an agreed period. 

A second linked policy is an ‘Acting-up scheme’, which would be an easy way of allowing more junior staff, such as postdocs, to temporarily share the responsibilities of PIs who drop to part-time hours, providing important career progression opportunities in the process. Another we are considering is working with pre-award staff in the Edinburgh Research Office to develop a checklist that can help them build EDI-friendly measures into grant costing. 

We will be implementing these interventions with professional services colleagues in the coming months, with the project finishing by the end of 2021. By engaging with everyone who contributes to research culture and designing different types of systemic interventions, we are creating multiple impact pathways to drive the changes our system so urgently needs.