The pandemic has provided valuable lessons for funders to rethink research culture

An image showing money in test tubes

Source: © Paul Garland/Ikon Images

By directing funding appropriately we can build a more inclusive and diverse research culture

The last 18 months has changed the way the world works and research is no exception. Good research culture has become more important than ever as the pandemic has tested the community’s resolve and creativity.

Individuals have been affected in many ways, whether it’s through the impact on wellbeing and mental health or their ability to carry out their research. A recent Vitae study, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), found that 58% of respondents said the pandemic had made it impossible to do their planned research.

The R&D community has rallied to meet the challenge of the pandemic at an extraordinary pace, enabling the UKRI to be at the forefront of vaccine research and development, building on our long-standing investments in underpinning research across disciplines. And we can draw valuable lessons from this response on how we can foster a positive and inclusive culture, drawing upon talent from across the sector and society. Talented people and teams are what makes our system special.

What are we doing?

The recently published Research and Development People and Culture Strategy sets out the government’s commitment to creating a more inclusive, productive and sustainable R&D sector in the UK, in which a diverse set of people and ideas thrive. Having helped to shape the strategy, UKRI is developing ambitious new measures to put this vision into practice.

These include establishing a good practice exchange where ideas on improving culture can be tested; a joined-up talent offer open to people across all career stages, sectors, and cultures; and consultation on a new deal for postgraduate research students addressing funding and career routes.

Fostering a diverse and inclusive research environment requires addressing underrepresentation. At the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) we know that we face many challenges around creating a more inclusive environment. Our have your say surveys and strategic dialogues have provided colleagues with rich lived experiences to help shape and co-create strategy.

The underrepresentation of women in the engineering and physical sciences is a significant, long-standing challenge as outlined in our recent community survey and report. We have been making changes, though we have much further to go. Work to date includes introducing mixed gender panel policies, refreshing membership of the peer review college and introducing policies to support those with caring responsibilities.

Our 2019–20 award rates for women principal investigators were 36%, compared with 30% for men, and for the fourth consecutive year, women have had higher award rates than men in our fellowship scheme.

We also know that researchers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented in our portfolio, and we have recently published our action plan to address this. We are taking action to challenge bias and ensure fair and inclusive funding processes, and increase representation in our peer review college and advisory bodies.

Within the EPSRC physical sciences team, we are working towards aligning and implementing organisational policies to ensure that we can act on the challenges faced by the communities that we support. We’re starting by looking at our team, ensuring that we are equipped with the right knowledge and tools to meaningfully engage. To enable an R&D system that can reach its full potential we are focused on fostering positive change within the community.

We are a diverse team, with different backgrounds, and we’ve gone through change in the past 18 months like everyone else, using this journey to help set our culture and ways of working. We know the effects of the pandemic will continue for some time and as an organisation we have issued guidance to the community on what additional support we can offer.

In line with UKRI’s vision, we want a culture where everyone feels valued, that their role in enabling R&D is recognised and we can create an inclusive environment that continues to inspire a future generation.

Working together

The challenges we face are not unique to the chemical sciences community, but we all have a role to play to bring research culture and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) up the agenda.

If you don’t know where to start, or what the challenges are from beyond you own perspective, then the RSC and UKRI have resources that can help. EPSRC will also be launching a new guide later this year to help embed EDI in departments and institutes.

We are committed to fostering and delivering this culture change – but it will require all of us across the sector to take the action necessary to make this happen. Small changes can make a positive impact. Ask yourself what more can we collectively achieve together?