Universities must overhaul the toxic working culture for academic researchers

A survey has warned that researchers are too stressed. It’s up to universities to improve their working environment

Last modified on Wed 15 Jan 2020 12.02 EST

Academic research is an exciting, creative and varied endeavour, yet there is growing evidence that our culture has developed unhealthy levels of anxiety and stress. As the UK increases research and development spending – all the more important after Brexit – we will see much-needed growth in the number and significance of researchers. Yet it’s clear that we also need to make changes to their working conditions.

This is underscored by a new survey from research funder Wellcome, which says that 78% of researchers think that high levels of competition are creating unkind working conditions, while 57% warn of a long-hours culture. The findings resonate with my own experience: I have seen this stress during my academic career and through my conversations as a university leader. They also mirror the results of our own recent internal survey on research culture.

This is why I believe that universities must unite to create a research culture that is truly supportive and will sustain our talented research community as they address the social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

To begin, leaders from across the research sector – at universities, funders and societies – need to accept that the drive for increased performance has resulted in an unintended consequence: a hyper-competitive and individualistic working environment. This is damaging to the wellbeing of staff and counterproductive to addressing the world’s most pressing problems.

The real solutions will be practical, however. One of the thorniest problems is career paths, exemplified by Wellcome’s finding that only 19% of early-career researchers feel secure in pursuing their career. At Glasgow we have invested more than £18m to support early-career researchers’ applications for independent fellowships. Many other universities are doing similar. We’ve also introduced new pathways to enable specialist researchers to become, for example, technologists or data scientists, so that they are rewarded for the activities they actually do rather than shoehorning them into traditional job descriptions.

There also needs to be more support for researchers to enter careers outside academia, whether it’s in industry, business, or the cultural and third sectors. This might include employer networking and career events.

There are cultural issues at play, too. Wellcome found concerns about high levels of competition even within teams, and about weaknesses in leadership and management. Research thrives best in collegial workplaces where senior staff set a good example. At my university we have recently changed the professorial promotion criteria to recognise the way in which candidates support their colleagues to succeed.

The Wellcome survey indicated that researchers feel they have too little time for research after completing all their other duties. At Glasgow, our researchers told us that they most wanted autonomy, and to be trusted to get on with the work that they are passionate about. As part of our five-year culture action plan we’ve committed to reducing their administration load and freeing up more of their time, for instance by hiring more professional support staff to help them with research funding applications.

Improving research culture is a continuing process and one that we all have a stake in. Success is not something that a single university can achieve alone – universities such as Sheffield and Bristol are leading their way by fuelling discussions about how to improve the status quo. To improve our working culture, all universities and funders must work together. I’m proud of the work our researchers do, and am determined to create a culture in which they can do even better.

Anton Muscatelli is the vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow

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