If I just introduce ourselves. Well, actually, if Ellen introduces herself first.
So I’m Ellen, I’m a Senior Talent Programme Manager in the Talent and Skills team at UKRI. I’ve had a slightly interesting career trajectory. Haven’t we all? So I was a small animal vet. I then worked at the University of Oxford in a Public Engagement Officer role and in a Research Management role. Before I joined the UKRI Talent and Skills team in June, I worked at EPSRC.
I’m Nik. I work on Ellen’s team. I used to be a postdoc in Sheffield and in Edinburgh, and I actually helped write the revised research concordat, and now our team has responsibility for the concordat and technician work streams in UKRI, so a role in supporting both postdocs and technicians. That’s both as a funder and as an employer, because UKRI employs a significant number of our own research staff in institutes like the LNB and the STFC sites at Harwell.
I thought I’d start by giving you kind of a intro to the concordat and why it’s needed. So, this is the third revision of the concordat and each one has kind of got more specific than the last. We know that there are research culture problems around this area. We know from Wellcome Trust’s Reimagine Research survey and review, that the data that came out of that, we know that the situation is not getting better by itself. And we also know that most PhD’s and Early Career Researchers are not going to follow this kind of traditional, academic career pathway – through to the lecturer to professor pathway. Most of them will be pursuing careers outside of academia and we need to support them to do so.
So, what do we mean by researcher for the concordat? The definition itself are basically individuals whose primary responsibility is to conduct research within mostly higher education institutions or research institutes. So still quite a HE-focused initiative and a rough heuristic is it’s for STEM disciplines. It’s effectively postdocs plus the other roles, a postdoc equivalent, and the other roles around the boundaries of that and the equivalent within the different disciplinary remits.
The concordat does encourage rolling out the benefits and consideration of research culture and the career support to other groups, such as PhD students, research and teaching staff, teaching-only staff and researchers, technicians. But it was decided to keep the focus on that early career researcher group to avoid diluting the impact of that group that this initiative was felt to be helping.
Now, the revised concordat is structured around the three key principles which are environment and culture, employment, and professional and career development. In that, they are identified as four stakeholder groups, which each have obligations under the concordat and UKRI as a funder is one of these. So, research funders have a set of obligations for what we should be doing to support researchers. UKRI is also an employer, so we also have obligations as an employer, as do the universities that are signatories. But there are also managers of researchers, so PI’s but also heads of department and the senior managers within departments that have obligations for those last two stakeholder groups.
But if you want to know what institutions and research funders should be doing, you can always have a quick look through the concordat and our action plan. So the obligations on managers is this – and this is paraphrased, I’ve tried to summarise it a bit because they are quite wordy – is to undertake training in EDI, employment law and institutional policy around employment and around… Well, actually, any other policies like EDI and research integrity, things like that, and training for leadership and management. To put that into practice in terms of the working environment, thinking about bullying and harassment, research integrity, diversity, fair recruitment, flexible working. To engage with efforts within the institution and I guess with research funders like UKRI to develop policy.
Policies and strategies aiming to improve research culture and support researchers to actually engage in performance management and goal-setting with researchers, and to have those career development discussions, performance reviews and career reviews. To support researchers in preparing for non-academic careers, because we know that’s where the majority of them are going to end up. Also within that, to give researchers enough time to develop professionally and an opportunity to develop an intellectual leadership and ownership of their projects.
No one hires a PhD to micromanage them. Researchers themselves have an obligation to look after, you know take ownership of their own careers. So, the phrase is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. We can all put whatever we can in place but ultimately, it is up to researchers to be driving forward for themselves. But they also have roles in supporting their peers and colleagues, engaging with these professional development opportunities, and engaging with opportunities that their institution (and funders) give them to try to work on these issues. I think I’d separate this last one out as well, and that is to prepare for careers beyond academia. Where again, not sounding like a broken record, but we know most of them will be going.
Now, we published our action plan for the concordat. As a concordat signatory, we will have an obligation to publish a plan within a year of signing up to the concordat. A lot of these have been delayed because of COVID which is fair enough. We published our action plan as a funder in July. We are working on our action plan as an employer, and we’re going to have an approach where we have sub-plans, an overarching corporate plan, and sub-plans for each of our units. So, there will be different plans for the MR team to choose, to STFC, to the kind of NERC institutes that we have.
But our plan really aims to support researchers in pursuing careers wherever they would like to, and not just limiting them to academia. Thinking about their professional development, thinking about the working conditions, the broader research culture piece. We want to think about this as not just the research culture, working environment, what to do, but we want to aim for that to be much broader than just researchers. We want an environment which helps everyone to reach their potential, and this is where mine and Ellen’s work with the technician commitment comes in, because there’s a lot of overlap between the kind of support that everyone in the research innovations system needs.
But a couple of the things that we feel are important for PIs to pick up in this forum, is that as part of our plan, we want to look at our grant assessment. So, to have a think about basically the impact of track records on grant assessment, which are particularly important now with Coronavirus. We know that has had different impacts depending on different characteristics or disciplines. We want to look at the workload expectations of researchers, whether PIs are asking for enough resource to complete that, to complete their projects. I guess this isn’t just for researchers as well, but this is something that we would probably want to look at for any staffing request. To look at whether applicants are giving enough thought to how they can develop their staff within the context of their project.
As part of that, it’s also to look at how we can assess leadership and management, but also how we can invest in any gaps we find strategically, be that by council or by discipline, in developing leadership and management within our PI populations or our grant applicant populations. As part of this piece, we want to recognise a much broader range of contributions than just the traditional paper in grant capture. You might have seen from the recent reducing bureaucracy announcement, that we’re looking to introduce an inclusive narrative CV format that’s based on the Royal Society’s Resume for Researchers that aims to capture a much broader range of contributions. This really intended to span much more than just papers and to look at how people have engaged with… To really value public engagement, how people have developed, supported their teams, the other kind of outputs that they have which necessarily aren’t publishable – such as bits of software or data sets.
We’re taking a pilot approach to this, so we have a couple of… They’re called here on this side are the ones that we’ve tried to pilot this in, and obviously we will be looking at the data from each step, refining and honing this as it goes, and this is something we’re looing to roll out more broadly. If I give you an indication of things we’ve asked for in the Transformative Research Technology scheme run by BBSRC and EPSRC. So, applicants were asked to put in a two-page capability to deliver and they were asked the following questions. So basically, an eligibility question to say what position you have and how you fit this criteria, to say how they’ve contributed to the generation and flow of ideas – to hypotheses. So that’s probably where the main research and paper stuff fits in in. How they’ve contributed to research teams and the development of others, which is probably the most relevant bit for us here when we’re talking about the concordat. How they’ve engaged with the wider research community and society, and how their environment will help them to deliver against these objectives. Again, this is a pilot scheme that’s due to be reviewed and getting back to this, analyse them and learning taken forward, but these were the things that were asked. These are the kind of things that will be assessed as part of this call.
As part of this, we are… And the aim here is that you will now have a platform or a venue to be able to talk about all of these other things that you’re doing as PIs and have that recognised, so all the contributions other than papers, and all of the other good stuff that you do in terms of the academic citizenship and supporting your teams. As part of our concordat plan, we also want to look across the funding landscape and talk to other funders. A conversation we’ve started already about what our vision for researchers is how they should be supported, but also in a sense, reduce bureaucracy by having the same set of standards across the piece and not just our own, but kind of wherever you look there’s the same kind of expectations for what a researcher is and the support they need.
We also want to look at how we assure grant funding and actually weight it much more in the REF, and you might have seen this recently from announcements as well, that Amanda Solloway had written to Research England and asked them to consider in their review how they can make the REF less bureaucratic. But also, weigh the kind of research culture and development aspects more in this. Obviously, this won’t affect this REF cycle because that’s already in play, but it’d be for whatever the success and the next steps are. We also want to listen to researchers more, so this is a community that we haven’t… Historically, we’ve found it quite difficult to engage with because they’re not always coded on our grant system. So, we want to give them a much greater voice in what we do, and to be able to access their experience more directly, and this is through a number of ways.
The first one I’ll go through on the next slide, but to look at actually how they’re coded on to our grants to make sure that when a new funding service has been announced, we can really capture who’s working on them, on the funded project. To look at the survey data that’s out there, CROS/PIRLS the successor, CEDARS, and perhaps where that isn’t being taken forward by an institution, what we can put in place to hear from researchers. I’ll go through the first one, which is to create an advisory structure for researchers. We have announced a pilot for an earlier career researcher forum quite recently, and we would encourage you to link all of your researchers to this, and this is really going to be a way for us to hear more directly from researchers and to have them have an input into our policies and to various vits of UKRI that want to hear from this voice.
So, we have a couple of things that we’d actually really like you to take away from this. The first one is that actually, that careers outside of academia are not a failure, so neither for you nor for your staff, and this should be seen as a success as long as people can contribute and reach their potential. One thing I’d also like to leave you with, is a great quote from one of our future leader fellows who contributed to the workshop which is, “if you can only offer someone a fixed-term job, part of the deal is that you help them to get the next one.”
So, there are a couple of gaps that we are aware of and this is the last slide that I’ll finish on, in how to offer PIs. We know that there’s often a lot of time pressures and there’s not always enough time to develop, to spend time on self-development. We know there’s not always a set idea or a consensus on what good looks like, and that is especially the case in how we prepare our researchers for non-academic careers and actually what should we be doing, what can people do for that.
Wellcome are currently developing a framework to identify good research leadership. Are you in discussion with Wellcome?
We’re in discussion with some bits of Wellcome, other bits are, and it all links together in various ways. I think the main thing that has come out for leadership and management from UKRI at the minute is, ESRC’s review into research leadership. And so other councils are looking at that now to see how they can take that forward and make it relevant for their own communities.
How can funders help to affect change in research culture?
We’re really pleased that you invited us along today, one thing we’re really keen to do is to understand from a PIs point of view what can funders do to help in terms of whether it’s getting buy-in at the very senior levels of the university, how we can help shift culture change, what type of support PIs need, how the peer review process can recognise all the other things that you do. We’re really keen to engage with you, so one thing I would say is, Nik and I don’t cease to exist after this meeting. Do feel free to send us e-mails if you have an idea that comes to you at three am. Don’t send it at three am, but you know, we’re very happy to engage with you to really understand what we can do to better support you and to get the sector to better support this work around developing researchers.
Are you aware of any universities that actively assist postdocs with the next step in their career when they are approaching the end of a short-term contract? Have any universities addressed this issue in their HR policies?
So that exact framing, I haven’t seen any universities do it, it’s quite new to us. It’s something that we would like to send as a message more I think.
Yes, there’s one thing I’d add to that is that UKRI has an opportunity in that we’re both an employer and a funder of researchers, so we know that some of our centres, institutes, and units take quite a proactive approach to those researchers that they have on short-term contracts and think about how they’re developing while they’re there. And also, not having them on successive short-term contracts. But obviously, their funding models are quite different.
Not all PIs have direct access to employers beyond academia. What practical support would help PIs (and their postdocs) to develop links within industry or business?
Part of our corporate plan and like you guys, your vision in general is to have a much more connected system in general, and to break down barriers between the discreet bits of the research and innovation system. That’s partly to encourage a flow of people and ideas. We’re trying to break down those very siloed structures, so it’s something that will hopefully happen a bit more in general as part of UKRI’s ongoing strategy. But I definitely take the point that it’s easier for some PIs than others depending on what… I guess how prepared they are already and I think it’s something that we are thinking of and we recognise.
Yes, just to add to that, UKRI is already trialling approaches around promoting greater career mobility, so it’s only within a specific area in biomedical sciences at the moment, but there’s a call currently open called innovation scholars, which is to fund secondments and postdoctoral researchers can apply for that. So that’s a way of them being funded to go and work in a different research environment. It’s to support interchange between academia and industry, academia and business, and it is around that exposing them to different research environments so that they can develop. It’s something that researchers can apply for, also technicians can apply for as well. So, if that’s something you’re interested in finding out more about, we can put you in touch with the people within UKRI who are looking after that scheme. So that’s another way that UKRI is looking at providing that exposure to a wider, different types of research environment.
Yes, we’d really value hearing what funders might be able to do to better support PIs or where funders can work with other funders or with the wider sector for PIs to be empowered to be able to have those conversations as well, because in our engagement, one of the things that has come up, so we did a workshop with our future leader fellowships, is it’s hard to have those conversations. It’s actually easier to have those conversations, some of them raised with PhD students, but once they’re at the postdoctoral researcher stage and they’ve heavily invested and sacrificed going into this academic track, then it’s difficult to have those conversations. So, it’s not just the opportunity or knowing about what the other options are, it’s having the skills to be able to have what can be quite a difficult conversation.
How much time would UKRI expect postdocs to be allocated in order to undertake independent research?
So actually, one thing I’d pick up on this is independence is necessary for… Developing that independence and leadership is necessary for more than just a research career. But in terms of the question, that does presuppose, that is geared very much towards a career in academia. Because the independent research and the existing collaborations and finishing papers and things, those are mostly important for the kind of academic thing. While we do want to encourage that, we also do want to encourage people taking a wider view of actually what professional development means. As a concordat signatory, the obligation is ten days, it’s a minimum of ten days a year pro-rata for a researcher to spend on professional development and there’s a further obligation on developing research independence within the context of the project.
I think there’s a bit here that I’d alluded to earlier on in the slides is that, as part of a PhD, you are developing independence and if your project doesn’t recognise that when you’re requesting, then why are you asking for that level of resource here in your grant application? But we had to come to a full position and actually decide what that means, and it might differ across all our remit and actually, what’s already there and how research is conducted. If you imagine researchers in the Arts and Humanities space, they would tend to become independent a lot earlier as well, so it’s not a question we can answer in one broad brush. Ellen, I don’t know whether you’d want to add to that.
Yes, so I think the expectation is there that ten days for professional career development and that would be tailored to the individual. So, if they are wanting to go down the academic track, then that could include, for example, them spending time developing their own research agenda. I think one of the things that we will do, so we’ve published our action plan and we’re moving into the implementation phase. One of the pieces of work, is to work across our research councils to work out what ten days looks like. Like Nik says, across the different disciplines and how that’s therefore reflected in the guidance and how that’s articulated to panels and peer review and things like that. It’s a minimum expectation, so the other thing is that the career development doesn’t have to be something special and extra that’s a whole day out of the lab, although it could be. It may well be integrated within all the other things that they’re doing in their project.
Routes into industry are sometimes not as clearly defined for postdocs coming from the Arts and Humanities as those from other disciplines. How are UKRI addressing this?
Yes, that’s a really interesting observation and we are working with our colleagues in the Arts and Humanities Research Council to understand the needs. We’re working with all of the research councils to understand those individual needs, but that’s an interesting reflection that we can pick up with them.
How can funders ensure that support is in place for postdocs that wish to take parental leave?
We do appreciate that there are challenges around the fixed-term nature of the funding and the fact that postdocs tend to be on short-term contracts. The councils are regularly looking at their peer review guidance and I know from when I was working at EPSRC, that they’re in the process of updating their guidance on flexible working, because they did some community engagement work last year and found that there are a couple of barriers to people requesting flexible working for themselves and their team. One is, where do you put it in the application form? How do you articulate it?
The other is, concerns about how it will be viewed by peer review. So, they’re putting things in place in their reviewer and applicant guidance to account for that. There is flexibility within grants for your postdocs to go part-time and for you to, for example, change from having a full-time postdoc to part-time postdocs and there is that flexibility there. But again, I think it’s communicating about the fact that that exists, but there is this structural issue around the precarity, which we know from our engagement does have impacts. It’s something that we need to understand better, and to understand what would be better in its place. I don’t think the sector is in a position where we would be saying right, everybody goes on open-ended contracts. I don’t think everybody’s ready for that yet, but I think we do need to understand the EDI impact so that we can make the case for less precarity I think.
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