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THE BLACK HOLE

Research culture in biomedical science needs to change

A new Wellcome Trust sponsored survey will hopefully bring about some positive change in the field.

By DAVID KENT | OCT 10 2019

When money is given a voice, people listen – especially those driven by money and power. For many years, academic researchers have voiced concerns over a toxic research culture and while these people are sometimes supported with vigorous nodding, it is rare to see a coordinated response and effort to change coming from the “senior brass” all at once. This is why it was surprising (and pleasing) to see a flurry of emails over the last two weeks around changing the research culture in biomedical science.

To be fair, this string of emails simply encouraged researchers to fill out a new Wellcome Trust sponsored survey on research culture which at first blush may seem quite low key (and probably ended up in many trash bins), but timing is everything and my unique position as someone who has recently moved institutions has unveiled something that I hope means that the higher-ups have been given a warning shot. Within a few days I received the request to fill out this survey from the heads of four different research institutes. I can only surmise that the Wellcome (the U.K.’s largest philanthropic biomedical research funder by some margin) called its troops into action. Unlike most troops however, these four individuals wield significant power in the biomedical research space – usually the type of people issuing edicts, not following them.

With so much future money contingent on the funder being satisfied, you would surely do the same, especially when the “ask” is simply to encourage filling out a survey. Things will start to get really interesting when Wellcome starts to seek evidence that research culture has actually changed. Here, there is some precedent as we have highlighted before regarding Athena SWAN status being tied to NIHR funding – something I still think Canada needs to take a hard look at if it wants the big universities to make meaningful change. In this particular case –changing the research culture – it appears that Wellcome are quite serious about making big changes.

Director Sir Jeremy Farrar certainly seems committed and appears to be actively embracing some of his own best practice suggestions. As I sit on a train writing this article on my way to the airport on a Saturday morning to attend a conference, I’ve just read Sir Jeremy’s tweet from yesterday:

Simple acts like publicly shutting off allow others to see that it is not a requirement to be “on” – all the time. Probably most importantly, it doesn’t impose being “on” into others. However, and I realize this won’t sit well with some readers – such actions do not mean you must stop working. If you are choosing to work on something that is exciting to you (an experiment you want to know the answer to, a book/paper you want to read, etc) then it’s absolutely ok to do this, and it seems just as unfair for people to demand you stop working as it is to demand that you do.

Work hours aside, culture change in biomedical science needs to go much further. Bullying and harassment are real and career progression still appears to be much easier for people with a certain profile than others. The Wellcome survey tries to quantify some of these issues and hopefully these first indications will help develop focus areas for their urgent areas of action.

I am hopeful that the weight of Wellcome can drive change in this important area. Redistributing power, credit, and resources will not be received well by those who possess it. Encouraging those who are brave enough to try and change the system at their institution or go to bat for someone that doesn’t fit the standard profile is going to be one of the biggest challenges. How do we legitimately and fairly establish value for the people that hold our research institutes and departments together?

I am looking forward to the survey results and more importantly to seeing where Wellcome elects to invest its considerable resource to driving systemic change. Biomedical research, and academic research in general, should be focused on driving positive change for society through rigorous critical assessment of the world around us. If Wellcome can do something to move toward this and a way from the political, secretive, and hyper-competitive nature of today’s biomedical research culture, they’ll have made a change that will pay off many-fold in the future.  For now:  Take the survey and share your ideas using #ReimagineResearch.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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