Exeter University Business School

The event took place at the Business School, University of Exeter

Having just finished a postdoc in the life sciences, I was particularly keen to attend a recent panel discussion on the culture of scientific research which took place at the University of Exeter.

The event was one of a series of discussions around the UK, as part of a project led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, in partnership with several institutions including the Royal Society. The debate involved both established and young researchers, and touched on a number of key issues.

The topic of good and bad practice in research was brought up by Liz Bohm, Senior Policy Adviser at the Royal Society (see her blog post on research integrity). Alarmingly, 1 in 7 researchers has witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data, according to a survey of more than 2,700 UK based scientists. Some advocate for harsher repression of misconduct, whilst others stress the importance of tackling the roots of the problem. Even though these are poorly identified as of yet, they are no doubt multiple and complex.

To deal with bad practice and promote good science, scientists may want to get involved in discussions on the topic and share lessons learnt. However, the Exeter speakers and audience agreed that scientists do not get involved often enough in events that are unrelated to their very specific research focus. Actually, these bigger-picture events are often frowned upon as a distraction from the lab.

Audience members in Exeter also pointed out that it is not always true that skills and good practice are being passed on from senior to junior researchers. In fact, a number of supervisors even discourage their students from attending training events.

Of course, a lot of supervisors are very good at training their staff. And there are academics who make invaluable contributions to the scientific community by spending time training other scientists, even at the expense of their own publication output. The problem is that these training contributions are not celebrated as much as high impact publications, which remain the main driver of career progression. Encouragingly, some universities have been developing awards to promote the value of teaching and training.

In addition to the recognition of researchers who effectively pass on skills, there could also be more training for all researchers to develop their coaching and mentoring abilities.

Professor Nicky Britten, a senior researcher on the Exeter panel, reported that she had not received any training in people and project management. More and more, research institutions promote workshops for research leaders and future leaders. I have been training with an organisation delivering leadership workshops – I have found these useful and think that others might too. Effective coaching will benefit everyone: for example, Professor Nicky Britten explained that appropriate delegation can alleviate the burden on supervisors and give younger researchers training in the skills they will need as future group leaders.

Finally, panel and audience agreed that young researchers are under tremendous pressure to publish to progress their careers – this pressure might well play a role in shifting the balance between honest scientific approaches and more questionable behaviours.

The truth is that however hard-working students and postdocs may be, only a minority will successfully achieve a career in academia. Liz Bohm emphasized that academia does not acknowledge that fact enough. Academics must be more open about alternative career perspectives, and provide more support and training to young scientists accordingly (see this plea from US biomedical researchers).

As illustrated by a recent Twitter thread, it is hard enough for junior researchers to get their papers and grants rejected; but thinking that this could mean the end of their life as scientists is a terrifying prospect. Changing career does not mean you failed as a scientist. In fact, as one author describes it, ‘coming out of the academic closet’ might be liberating. As stated by chairman Professor Nick Talbot FRS, there are plenty of highly-rewarding careers outside academia, where young scientists can make great contributions.

Concluding the Exeter discussion, Tim Naylor, Professor of Astrophysics, said that young researchers can change the culture. Young researchers are the workforce doing the experiments and analyses. They are receptive to training. They can promote good science and make a difference in more than one way.

So here I am, a pure product of academia turned science policy intern. Some would say that I ‘quit science’, and yet I feel as passionate as ever about science and its future.