Getting Universities’ People and Culture Right

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed there has been nothing to read for some time, regularly or irregularly. As for so many of us, this has been a tough year culminating, for me, in a chest infection (non-Covid) that knocked me back for weeks. I haven’t felt so ill and weak since I had ‘flu in 1990! Hence, I have lacked all energy to do anything on top of the bare essentials. A blogpost was well beyond me, even walking off the College site defeated me for quite a while. It is no doubt wholesome to be reminded of one’s fragility, particularly in the middle (or perhaps towards the end?) of a pandemic, but it is depressing to realise how much one’s physical and mental state can go into precipitate decline without warning. I am looking forward to my ‘get up and go’ being back in full strength soon.

Burnout is, of course, to be seen across academia. Our lives have been upended as we have been caught between government requirements to protect staff and students and the imperative to teach and otherwise support the student body and staff. I have not had to teach during this period, but the number of additional meetings (Zoom, naturally, occasionally broken up by Teams or even Googlemeet) required to ensure we complied with everything demanded for an establishment such as a Cambridge College, has been astonishing. I am looking forward, perhaps too optimistically, to my diary reverting to something less horrendous as we learn to live a new normal existence, whatever that may look like.

Around the time I got completely knocked off my feet this summer, BEIS published its R+D People and Culture Strategy, long trailed by Science Minister Amanda Solloway, with its sub-title ‘People at the Heart of R+D’, so here is the blogpost about this that should have been written weeks ago. How could I not be in favour of such a document? Putting people at the heart of the R+D enterprise is exactly how it should be. But…..full of laudable sentiments though the strategy is, it appears to lack any clear indication of the path from where we are now to where BEIS aspirations would take us.

It has always been heartening to hear the minister talk so passionately about the importance of people and their well-being, with her own first-hand experience of bullying in the workplace (not in the university sector) to spur her on to find ways to improve the situation. Likewise, over many years I have heard – indeed more than once shared a platform on this topic with – Ottoline Leyser talk about the importance of improving our lab culture, to eradicate the bullying and ensure all members of a research team are treated fairly and the breadth of their work respected beyond mere numbers of grants or papers. Nevertheless, fine words butter no parsnips, as my mother was prone to say.

The concluding statement about the whole document, headed ‘Making it a reality’ says ‘We invite and encourage institutions, businesses and the people who work in them and the wide range of other partners in the sector to work with us to drive change, making a difference in their own sphere of influence and thereby contributing to change across the sector.’ Such a statement would appear to lack any teeth, although one cannot argue with the intent. However, what is likely to change on the back of it? Universities should be already striving in this direction – as schemes such as Athena Swan (however unsatisfactorily revamped) and the Race Equality Chartermark highlight. These are schemes, note, that have been demoted by Solloway’s and her pair Michelle Donelan’s (Universities’ Minister) own actions, so that they cannot be linked directly to funding. So what we see is an overall plan of action that hopes for wide buy-in without any explicit mechanisms or levers attached. In this context, it is perhaps worth pointing the reader to a recent paper by Alison Phipps and Liz McDonnell in which they talk about ‘institutional polishing’ and ‘airbrushing’ as ways to look as if ED+I issues are being addressed in a university without any structural change ensuing. It is a depressing read that should give all of us wanting to work in this space pause for thought.

I would highlight two particular aspects of the BEIS paper that are admirable and need addressing, but where I can see nothing spelled out that is likely to lead immediately to change and improvement: the issues facing early career researchers (ECRs) and bullying and abuse of power in hierarchies within universities.  A consultation process with ECRs is envisaged, yet their problems are well-known already and I wonder what more will be gained from such a consultation. Many of the problems relate to the lack of permanent positions, meaning that the majority of postdocs end up not in the tenured ranks of faculty. Unless some dramatic reconstruction and expansion at the top of the academic pyramid is envisaged, or a radical decrease in the number of funded PhD students and postdocs to reduce the supply, it isn’t clear what solutions there are to this conundrum. (Neither, of course, are envisaged in the strategy document. Neither are likely to be popular.)

Sometimes people talk as if the answer was to create a new tier of permanent positions, lab managers or senior researchers with responsibility for key equipment, for instance. For those who got such a position it would be a satisfactory outcome, and there are many good reasons why research overall would benefit from their creation, instead of the hand-to-mouth, or rather grant-to-grant, uncertainty PIs face with keeping their research going on a steady basis. Nevertheless, looking back to the lecturer jobs bonanza of the 1960s, when a new swathe of universities was created, and how that led to stagnation in the job market for decades thereafter as those appointed at the time sat tight for years and practically no further jobs opened up, it is clear that such a ‘once in a lifetime’ job creation scheme would not provide a lasting solution for future generations of ECRs.

To my mind part of the needed solution is a much more honest dialogue about the nature of the pyramid, so that those embarking on a PhD have realistic expectations of what is likely to come next. The Royal Society (through a piece of work I was involved with) tried to set out such expectations and responsibilities on the sector some time ago. I’m not sure it got much traction, but it holds true. Students should be aware that, for most of them, moving swiftly, or even slowly, up the ranks to professor is an unlikely outcome, but that there are many other enticing opportunities for which their research training will stand them in very good stead. Their PhD supervisor is probably not the best person to inform them about these, given that the vast majority will only have worked in a university themselves; I would myself fit into that category. There are of course careers services available to researchers, which they should avail themselves of early on. Nothing of this gets a mention in the recent document, unless it is the idea – a good one – of facilitating porosity between academia and other sectors including industry.

The other issue, of bullying and harassment, is something I have often written about on this blog and elsewhere (e.g. see a rather personal account on this). We can – and should – all deplore this, but what does this latest document suggest should be done about it? As a colleague rather unkindly said, it is sadly vacuous. There are no teeth or levers provided, just that the sector should work together to stamp it out. That, one could argue, is how it has been for decades and that much-desired eradication shows no signs of happening. Again, to quote the document, we are told BEIS will ‘encourage the recently established Forum for Tackling Bullying and Harassment to develop sector-wide definitions for all forms of bullying; and to establish clear guidelines to inform future policy and action.’ I don’t need a definition to know when bad behaviour is going on; on the other hand perhaps some people want to hide behind formalities rather than tackle the issues; I refer the reader again to the Phipps and McDonnell paper illustrating just this point.

Sexual harassment should already be covered by clear guidelines in place in every institution. The trouble is more usually the inability to create an environment in which people feel safe bringing forward allegations, with confidence they will be appropriately treated. For every Fred Marcy convicted of such outrageous behaviour (and eventually kicked out of the National Academy of Sciences) there will be plenty of others who either are permitted to slip beneath the radar because no one feels willing to speak up for entirely understandable reasons, or whose behaviour is nevertheless tolerated because the leadership does not want to see a major player be disgraced. This is the reason why Non-Disclosure Agreements are so pernicious (as argued here by Mark Geoghegan), since a complainant can be paid off without disgrace being attached to the perpetrator, who then feels able to continue their appalling behaviour without restraint.

Bullying is perhaps harder to identify with confidence, since what a PI feels is legitimate language addressed to a researcher about ‘pulling up socks’ or working harder may feel to the recipient like unreasonable pressure. However, I am not convinced definitions will help get round this, as much as appropriate dialogue between the parties. There are times when pulling up socks really is the only way a PhD will be accomplished, after all! But this is where I believe sector-wide reconsideration of incentives is important.

The pressure an organisation puts on all its staff – multiplied during the current pandemic – can be excessive and that pressure can be onward transmitted to researchers in the spirit of the office boy kicking the cat. If all that matters for progression is the value of grants, the impact factor of journals published in (and it is surprising how many DORA-signatory organisations at the highest level still permit panels to factor IF’s in decision-making, even if it’s not written down as an explicit criterion) or size of group, then there is no incentive for a PI actually to worry about their students’ wellbeing. Narrative CVs, which UKRI are introducing, may allow panels – appointment or promotion – to assess whether an applicant has worked towards ED+I initiatives or shown particular interest in mentoring ECRs, but if no value is actually attached by the institution to such actions, such assessment may carry no weight. Expectations should have been set higher in this space in the People and Culture document, even if mandating all institutions should always pay heed to such factors might have been a bridge too far.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. Maybe the very fact that BEIS has mentioned such thorny issues at all is a hopeful sign our institutions will change. But I, for one, will not be holding my breath that any change will be consequent on its publication, much though I’d like to be proved wrong.

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1 Response to Getting Universities’ People and Culture Right

  1. Brigitte says:

    Glad you are back. And thanks for the analysis of what could have been an important document but wasn’t.

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