Over three years I dedicated long hours and weekends to the PhD project that I was desperate to make a success. I wanted my research to make a useful contribution to knowledge, but I also knew that my future career in research depended on it.
I submitted my thesis, but had to face the fact that my results, though solid and a step forward, were not exciting enough to be published as a paper in a “high impact” journal. At this point, a senior leader in my department advised me not to waste any more time. Instead I should bin the data, cut my losses and move on to a new research job in search of sexier results and papers that I could launch a career from.
I ignored their advice. But this experience summed up my growing sense that what I had thought was a noble endeavour in pursuit of truth was something rather different. Now, the findings from a recent survey of 4,000 researchers by Wellcome into research culture paint a much broader picture of what I experienced a decade ago.
What comes through clearly is that researchers are proud of what they do and have a strong sense of vocation. But this deep commitment means that failure can feel intensely personal, and researchers put huge pressure on themselves to succeed. This is exacerbated by hyper-competition for funding and recognition in the system that is taking a toll on individuals.
70% of survey respondents said they felt stressed on an average working day. Add in unhealthy power dynamics and researchers say this makes for a toxic working environment, with people stepping on one another to get to the top.
All of this has an impact on research too. Only half of respondents thought that the current culture promotes high-quality research, with 71% saying that the system favours quantity over quality. Misaligned incentives invite researchers to cut corners to be successful. Overall, 65% of respondents agreed that the current culture is unsustainable long-term.
In many ways, these results make me feel lucky. While I was sometimes stressed, my mental health didn’t take a bad hit—but 53% of respondents have sought or wanted to seek professional help for depression or anxiety during their research career.
My discussion when I was advised not to publish my work was unpleasant, but this seems insignificant compared to the 43% who have experienced bullying or harassment—and a similar proportion have experienced discrimination. And I had a kind, honest supervisor who never took undue credit. Unlike almost a quarter of the junior researchers who filled in our survey, I never felt pressured to produce a particular result.
I left research not long after my PhD. The culture pushed me away from the thrill of discovery, the creative, challenging debate and international camaraderie that I’d so enjoyed. I was worried that if I’d stayed, the culture would erode my values and I’d start acting in ways I disliked so much in others.
Since leaving research I’ve wondered how things could change. Now I have the opportunity through my role at Wellcome.
Funders like Wellcome have—often unintentionally—shaped the current culture through the rewards, requirements and support we put in place for researchers. We now have a responsibility to reimagine research, and to use our influence consciously as a tool for change. I’m proud that we’ve chosen to play our part—and excited and daunted by the challenge that lies ahead.
We’re not starting from scratch. Across the research sector, there are good managers, caring and supportive mentors, and honest, rigorous researchers doing brilliant research. We all need to learn from them.
We can only deliver real change in partnership with individuals, universities and other funders. It will take time. But together, we can reimagine a research culture that we can be proud of. One that is creative, inclusive and honest and that allows researchers and their research to be at their best.
Beth Thompson, Head of UK & EU Policy, Wellcome
This is an edited version of a piece that appears on the Wellcome website