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Discovering positive research initiatives at SES universities

Research culture brings together the behaviours, values, and expectations of research communities across different organisations. Positive environments can support researchers to thrive and explore ideas with partners. In comparison, poor research practices can stifle growth and, in some cases, negatively impact an entire department. 

By focusing on building a positive research culture, organisations are putting research and innovation at the heart of their growth strategy – and in turn, this shows researchers in that organisation that their work and well-being are valued.   

At the SES, we’re celebrating different ways our partner universities embrace positive research initiatives – and we’re looking at new ways to support them within the UK’s wider research environment.

Building a long-term research support plan with UCL

UCL is known internationally for its influential research, and the university proudly boasts 18,000 research outputs a year that help to shape policy, tackle challenges, and improve lives. 

After a lengthy consultation with teams across the university in 2022, UCL has developed an Enhancing Research Culture Programme and a 10-year roadmap that leans into the challenges of the research field. This programme addresses the different routes to building a healthy and vibrant environment by focusing on five key themes. These are transparent and fair career development, people-centred leadership and management, opportunities to collaborate and innovate, openness and integrity in research and innovation, and a supportive and inclusive environment. Since 2021, cross-UCL and faculty-led research culture initiatives have met these themes with new grants and funds, supportive workshops and training, and research festivals. 

Heading up cross-UCL initiatives is the Research Culture team, which works with all project leads from the different faculties to help them meet the needs of local research teams. To action learnings from the programme, in 2022, UCL received £1m from Research England to fund 39 projects that laid the foundation for the longer-term research culture roadmap. These projects covered themes such as open access, improving the academic 360 feedback process, and a podcast series around healthy and inclusive research environments. 

Embedding entrepreneurship, innovation, and engagement with Queen Mary University of London

Recognised as having ‘Very High Engagement’ across ‘Research partnerships’, ‘Public and Community Engagement’, and ‘IP and Commercialisation’ in this year’s Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), Queen Mary excels with its research initiatives.

This achievement shows the university’s clear commitment to building and maintaining a positive research culture – with entrepreneurship, innovation, and engagement at the heart of its strategy. Supported by its Research Highways, the university wants its research to have a global and local economic and societal impact.

Commercial spin-outs from different departments are already showing the impact, including DragonflyAI, which came from a close collaboration between researchers at Queen Mary, business partners and entrepreneurs. This visual analytics platform uses cutting-edge neuroscience data and artificial intelligence to accurately predict what consumers see first when they look at content. The platform already has clients such as Harrods, GSK, Mitsubishi, Mars, and Jaguar Land Rover. 

This year, individuals involved in research culture at Queen Mary have also made the shortlist at the prestigious Times Higher Education (THE) Awards. Kate Thornton, technical resource manager for the Faculty of Science and Engineering, is up for ‘Outstanding Technician of the Year’ for her exceptional practical skills, commitment, and vision. Professor Julia Hörnle, chair of internet law at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, has been shortlisted for ‘Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year’ based on the supportive, stimulating, and inspirational research environment she builds for doctoral students.

King’s College London: making research fairer for all

King’s College London is committed to making the field more inclusive by exploring the broader culture surrounding research. The goal is to build a culture where marginalised voices feel empowered and uplifted to share different ideas and knowledge. 

This focus extends into the university’s breadth of activity – with four main areas including ethics, governance, integrity, and community – and the people involved. Everyone engaged in research – from traditional research contracts to professional services staff to technicians and students – benefits from the framework of inclusivity. 

To build the longevity and impact of this commitment, King’s has funded central posts to work on policies and practices that support a positive culture. The aim of this investment is to devise activities that will make fundamental improvements to research culture at faculty level. 

Alongside funding for posts and individual faculties involved in research, the university’s research funding scheme includes King’s Together. This flagship seed-funding programme offers £1,000,000 per annum to support the development of multi and interdisciplinary projects that align with positive research themes, including sustainable growth, culture & identity, healthy lives, and social justice.

University of Southampton: celebrating everyone that makes research possible 

For the University of Southampton, a positive research culture comes from “a fair, equal and inclusive research community, who respect each other and their differences, whilst encouraging curiosity”. This main driver powers the strategy to promote transformative experiences that drive change in the world. 

Along with supporting knowledge exchange and better working conditions, a priority is to ensure recognition of all the research community – including research assistants, technicians, software engineers, librarians, and research support staff. Professor Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director of the Software Sustainability Institute and a Director of the Southampton Research Software Group, established the Hidden REF in 2020 to celebrate those who aren’t the named researchers that enable work to happen. In 2021, the Hidden REF held its first competition to showcase the diversity of research outputs in UK research and those in hidden roles that make it happen. 

Fast-forward to 2023, the group has turned into a campaign for challenging preconceptions about which roles are deemed ‘important’ in research. The campaign is also championing the 5% Manifesto, which encourages Higher Education Institutes to commit to submitting at least 5% of their non-traditional research outputs to REF 2028. In 2023, the Hidden REF held its first festival, which brought together people who work in non-traditional research roles alongside policymakers, publishers, and others involved in the research assessment to join a community and influence policy. 

Making research brilliance a cross-institutional priority with the University of Oxford

Research practice, valuing contributions, and building careers are the three interconnected programmes that the University of Oxford has championed to build a positive and sustainable research environment. The university is now focusing on actions that can affect everyday research practices, bringing in broader factors such as openness, collaboration, teamwork, and diversity. 

Oxford has a thriving research network of more than 650 support staff, organised into six communities of practice, including one established for research culture. Four research culture facilitators – one for each academic division – are joining the team this year. A cross-institutional Research Practice Group is developing core training in how research is designed, planned, executed, and reported. These modules will be openly available for researchers at any level or discipline. 

This year has been a pivotal one for Oxford’s research initiative. The groups have published a sector report to address the barriers experienced to equitable access to research funding, which has led to an action plan and a sector forum. In August 2023, the university was awarded £1m from the new Wellcome Institutional Funding for Research Culture to develop research leadership, starting in January 2024 for two years.

University of Cambridge: Exploring the research job funnel 

A crucial part of building a positive research culture is enabling researchers to move through their careers in a supported environment. The University of Cambridge is leading the international Action Research on Research Culture (ARRC) project to investigate the career cycle of researchers with aims to change and improve every stage – from recruitment to development and retention of researchers.

The project will focus initially on three key strands: a study to test how the format and content of CVs can change shortlisting decisions for Postdoc positions, an investigation into professional development resources for researchers, and a study into how contract extensions and redeployment schemes can create uncertainty in academic careers. 

Partner institutions – University of Edinburgh, Leiden University (Netherlands), Freie Universität Berlin, and ETH Zurich – will expand on this research and use it to develop further findings – creating relevant frameworks, policies, and materials to create sustainable long-term change.

Research excellence tools for a rounded research culture at Imperial College London 

Imperial’s goal is to create a culture that effectively enables courageous research with a global outlook. Along with underpinning values and initiatives that support this, the university has a thorough Research Culture Toolkit for teams to help them implement change within their own research environment and as part of their grant applications. 

Since 2021-22, Imperial has received over £3m of Research England’s Enhancing Research Culture funding to invest in developing its broader research culture. This year, the university hosted a diverse range of projects – including engaging local underserved young people to an award-winning programme of activities aiming to increase the progression of Black students to postgraduate studies and The Good Science Project

Changing the future of research together

What’s clear to see is that all of our partner universities are boldly changing the UK’s research landscape, creating new best practices, and acknowledging every individual involved in ground-breaking research across different specialisms. 

Looking to 2024, we’re proud to continue to support our partners in their research growth and will continue to champion their individual efforts while promoting further routes to collaboration.