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 Suggestion Box Spring 2020 - Executive Summary

Two questions were formulated to encourage participants to think about both the institutional research culture and themselves as contributors to that culture: 

  • What do you think is needed to create significant positive chance to research culture within Queen’s? 
  • As an individual, what actions do you think you could take to help drive positive change in research culture within Queen’s? 

Main Themes 

“People want to feel valued, supported and recognised for the research that they do so anything that supports this will assist in developing a strong research culture.” 

The emergent response is that ensuring staff have enough time in the working week to conduct their research effectively would be the greatest institutional contribution to research culture that Queen’s could makeAdequate support for research is another. Many respondents were clear that the support staff they work with do their best, but there are gaps in the capacity and expertise of professional services. In addition, a number of respondents raised difficulty in accessing support that exists, because they do not know where to find it. Recognition of both research and work contributing to the research culture was also greatly desired. 

“I try to work in ways that I would like to be commonplace across the university - drafting papers with newer post-docs, ensuring that any grants I write include contract researchers on decent contracts.”  

On an individual level, the theme was a desire and willingness to put work into building up collegiality, to collaborate and engage, and to develop junior colleagues. A number of mid-career and senior staff stated their willingness to mentor both juniors and peers, and several offered to coordinate and contribute to in-school seminar series and other collaborative activities, bringing together established staff, postdocs, independent researchers and PhD students in order to broaden horizons and integrate Schools. 

Points of Note 

Bullying & Harassment 
Several respondents raised difficulties reporting and addressing bullying behaviour, either not knowing how or where to report or not feeling confident to do so. Several requested a more transparent and accessible method for reporting or whistleblowing. This suggests that the existing mechanisms for reporting are either not considered adequate or are not widely enough known. 

Workload Allocation 
There is a tension emerging between research and all other workload commitments, and a real sense that on the School, if not the university level, research is not as important as teaching and administration and prioritised accordingly 

Research staff and support staff were often commented on as being insufficiently recognised by the university and by fellow staff. Non-research activity was raised as a particularly underappreciated area, especially that which falls outside the strict bounds of their job, but enhances the culture of the university, such as mentoring, seminars, collaborations and engagement. 

Concerns were expressed around staffing levels in general, particularly where staff feel that the current student-staff ratios and teaching loads in combination with research are close to unmanageable without greater teaching support. The personal impact of fixed term and postdoc posts was raised, as well as the effect that such constant uncertainty and churn has on the culture within a lab or School. The lack of capacity to retain experienced scientists and technicians was noted as a particular issueThis suggests a need for better training and knowledge transfer so that there is always more than one person in a lab capable of stepping up to handle equipment.  

Staff Integration 
Some respondents felt that new staff are often effectively abandoned once they have arrived, particularly those relocating from outside NI/UK. There may be a place for a dedicated person within Faculties or P&C to be the designated contact for such staff and assist them where necessary as they settle into life in Belfast. 

Several respondents felt that the research activity and background of teaching and technical staff is undervalued and disregarded, and that the institution as a whole tends to split apart research, teaching and technical staff in an unhelpful way, creating the appearance of a two-tier system 

Project Management and Delivery 
It was noted that there are only three project managers within Research and Enterprise, and very little other dedicated delivery support throughout the University. It was pointed out that this situation potentially introduces serious weaknesses into grant applications and project governance. 

A number of respondents expressed a desire for better or more structured support from Research and Enterprise and People and Culture. Particular difficulty was noted around accessing support from R&E, specifically in finding the correct team to assist. Potentially it might be useful to give each School or Faculty a point person similar to the HR Business Partner role and have them point academics in the correct direction. 

One respondent felt that Queen’s has historically been poor at communicating with the staff, and highlighted that the clarity of COVID 19 communication has been helpful for morale and should be the model going forward. 

 Research Culture Engagement Events Summer 2020 – Executive Summary

Priority Area 1


Incentivise and enable a culture of creativity which encourages and supports big ideas, ambition, collaboration and, crucially, research with openness and integrity

Do the issues and challenges in this area resonate?  What have we missed? 

  • Particular resonance in the points around quantity over quality, pressure to publish, and effect of metrics in creating risk averse behaviour at all levels of the institution.
  • School level disparities arising as support and resources focused on staff perceived as successful, resulting in imbalanced workloads across schools and hampering research of other staff.
  • Participants noted a conflict between the direction from funders and incentives in publishing – interdisciplinary teams are prone to retreat back into silos in order to achieve publication.
  • From a PhD perspective – interaction and sharing mechanisms appear to be declining over time, affecting opportunities for collaboration, knowledge sharing and relationship building.

Where are the key intervention points? How do we effect real change?

  • Need effective leadership from the top – leadership prioritising goals (example given of VC’s clear instruction to prioritise teaching in upcoming semester), in order to create a framework for priorities at Faculty, School and line manager levels.
  • Participants identified need for mechanisms bringing researchers together in a meaningful and sustainable way (research clusters mentioned as having done this previously).
  • Short-termism reducing opportunities to be creative – short funding and appraisal cycles reduce capacity for research and activity of long-term strategic benefit.
  • Mentoring – P&C initiatives positive, need backing on School level in create space for it.
  • Possible need for School level roles responsible for facilitating research culture.

What does the ideal research culture look like in this area?  How do we measure change?

  • Indicators:
    • The extent to which researchers and staff from different and diverse backgrounds are in positions of influence across the University
    • Valuing “how” objectives have been as well as “what” has been achieved
    • How a school is supporting and mentoring all research staff and students as a measure of success – eg, identifying and resolving barriers to research.
    • Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing between schools where those successful in encouraging an inclusive and creative environment can mentor others.

Are there particular challenges presented by a) Covid-19 and b) equality and diversity?

  • Exacerbated negative research culture issues at Queen’s and placed additional pressures on those with caring responsibilities – typically female staff.
  • Difficult/impossible to conduct research and this has created significant problems for researchers on short-term contracts.
  • Some staff have been working on public good issues rather than personal research. How does the University plan to recognise this in terms of valuable contribution?
  • The ability to form new partnerships is massively impacted by COVID
  • Research staff arriving during COVID can feel lonely, and find it difficult to know who does what and where to turn.

Priority Area 2

Provide a supportive and inclusive culture for all members of the research community which creates the time and space required to develop and build upon research ideas and opportunities

Do the issues and challenges in this area resonate?  What have we missed? 

  • Inconsistent support from PIs to PDRAs. The career path of senior academics and PIs has huge impact on their expectations of junior staff.
  • Poor circulation of information within schools – grants and opportunities.
  • Technicians not valued/do not feel valued, excluded from opportunities to participate in other stages of projects and not acknowledged in publication.
  • Lack of professional and technical support for grant holders. The project launch process doesn’t work, grant holders are not well trained or informed, PM capacity is low.

Where are the key intervention points? How do we effect real change?

  • Build up mentoring across the board, and particularly train mentors on working with different personality types.
  • Strongly encourage co-authorships and co-PI positions on major grants, in order to bring along junior staff
  • Equality of representation: need mechanisms to ensure that ECRs, postdoctoral staff, postgraduate students, and international students/staff have opportunities to feed into key committees at a local School-level, but also have representation in core University committees.
  • Improve resources and support for grant holders, work with experienced academics and professional services to centralise and improve grant launch process, train PIs and increase PM capacity.
  • Set expectations and requirements among senior staff emphasising the importance of supportive and inclusive research culture.
  • Encourage inclusion of all team members in all stages of projects in team environments (mainly the science disciplines).
  • Create space in admin and org environment for researches to express challenges and worries which may not be comfortable bringing to PI/manager – eg: appoint individuals at a local level, in ‘Safe Harbour’ roles, to offer support when required, especially to junior staff and underrepresented groups.

What does the ideal research culture look like in this area?  How do we measure change?


Are there particular challenges presented by a) Covid-19 and b) equality and diversity?

  • Backlogs of lab work, significant impact on and changes to dynamics of human subject research, significant access issues for archival/source research. Will have ongoing impact across research community.
  • Need for clear expectation management on part of senior leadership to avoid pressure toward ‘virtual presenteeism’
  • Challenges regarding virtual teaching, copyright concerns and use of videoconferencing software.
  • Impact on individuals with caring responsibilities, especially female staff.

Priority Area 3

Encourage and facilitate collegiality and collaboration amongst the research community

Do the issues and challenges in this area resonate?  What have we missed? 

  • There is conflict between achieving targets and maintaining a collegial culture. Effect of REF refocus to unit emphasis, changes to academic progression and PDR outcomes should show a change in the institutional culture in this respect.
  • The need for easy-to-access information on every aspect of research funding applications and the research process.
  • Insufficient access to professional support for individual staff, particularly new and more junior academics and researchers.
  • Anxiety among ECR and fixed-term contract staff about their job security.
  • Junior/early career researchers would like greater visibility and recognition. Similarly those who support academic functions should be recognised for their skills and contributions.
  • A mismatch between the institutional focus on interdisciplinarity as a positive concept and the reality of structures which are still embedded in individual disciplines
  • Core values and behaviors encouraged at the University level are not always translated to meaningful action in Schools.

Where are the key intervention points? How do we effect real change?

  • Need for recognition on institutional level that the ‘research community’ is an array of micro-communities with varying experiences and expectations requiring different approaches.
  • More could be done to take full advantage of the added value that professional support colleagues can bring to research, e.g. in case of librarians supporting systematic reviews, research development staff supporting bid development. At present, this contribution is either not valued by the academic community (with exceptions) or not encouraged by leadership and management in professional services.
  • Encourage interdisciplinarity via recruiting on an interdisciplinary basis.

What does the ideal research culture look like in this area?  How do we measure change?


Are there particular challenges presented by a) Covid-19 and b) equality and diversity?

  • Covid-19 has highlighted the challenges of managing workloads. This is exacerbated by the social distancing requirements that mean many Schools are operating on shift patterns, impacting those staff with caring responsibilities, particularly childcare.
  • Academics had to step back from some research contracts, funding opportunities and peer reviewing in order to prioritise teaching. PIs are also trying their best to chase new projects and grants to continue the projects of existing PDRAs out of loyalty to these PDRAs.

Priority Area 4

Recognise the increasingly diverse range of career pathways that exist in research and provide equality of support for the personal development of the broader research community

Do the issues and challenges in this area resonate?  What have we missed? 

  • The profession looks different to 20-30 years ago; understanding and awareness of this from more established colleagues might help, particularly in the line management relationship.
  • A pyramid structure exists in academia and the University must manage expectations from the outset, and provide adequate information and support for alternative pathways
  • The requirement to demonstrate mobility between institutions and geographies can create an environment unfriendly to those with caring responsibilities or health/mobility issues.
  • Technical and professional support staff are often undervalued, and more could be done to support their career development

Where are the key intervention points? How do we effect real change?

  • The most effective way of incentivising effective and supportive leadership would be by recognising this as a measurable attribute in career progression and promotions criteria
  • Provide greater opportunities for ECRs etc. to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines, and external organisations, and consider how we make Queen’s more attractive to global talent who could come here.
  • Offer more opportunities for professional support staff to move around different departments on short-term projects and develop bridging funds to ensure we can retain experienced technical talent when research grants end.
  • Greater clarity and transparency around career progression and the criteria employed in promotions, including at a local School-level and for those involved in multi-disciplinary research.
  • Networking events to encourage engagement and knowledge exchange between schools, faculties, and support services.
  • Support the development of alternative career pathways, eg: Career Advisor posts and Career Days promoting and advising on both internal and external career opportunities.

What does the ideal research culture look like in this area?  How do we measure change?

  • All roles and contributions should be celebrated and recognised for their expertise
  • Less silos across the University and more opportunities to network, engage, and work collaboratively.

 Are there particular challenges presented by a) Covid-19 and b) equality and diversity?

  • While the group recognised the challenges of Covid, it was noted that it might present an opportunity to make meetings and conferences more inclusive via the move to a virtual environment.
  • Cancelled or postponed activities and budget reductions, due to Covid-19, have led to different funding schemes being reduced or withdrawn. This can present particular challenges to ECRs, who are still establishing contacts and have limited funding opportunities.
  • Covid-19 has highlighted the issue of gender/caring inequalities in relation to career progression etc.
  • Many of the challenges postdoctoral staff and ECRs are facing in terms of career options/alternatives will reduce even further given that the sector is facing losses.

Priority Area 5

Reward and recognise the diverse range of contributors and contributions that are made in a successful and thriving research environment

 Do the issues and challenges in this area resonate?  What have we missed? 

  • There are many teams which include high grade technicians who struggle to get recognition for the key role they play in grants, papers and other outputs. It is important that we find a mechanism which recognises and rewards their contribution.
  • There also needs to be more recognition for mentoring - this is time consuming and valuable work, and there currently isn’t a way to acknowledge or credit this.
  • Parts of the university remain extremely hierarchical. How as an institution, can we ensure that all senior staff treat all ECRs in a consistent and fair manner?
  • Early sharing of big ideas – senior academics who sit on key external committees should be disseminating ideas and upcoming trends back throughout the research base.
  • Academic colleagues are not always aware of the support that professional services can provide – it can be difficult for researchers to find this support easily.

Where are the key intervention points? How do we effect real change?

  • When communicating funding successes, letters of congratulations and other communications should be sent to all staff involved in the grant. This wider recognition is important and not difficult to institute.
  • We should use our research strengths to link up in an interdisciplinary manner across the university, becoming more unified as a university rather than as specific, separate schools.
  • There is a great deal of support when preparing grants and applications but there is much less support post award – it can be hard for academic colleagues to deal with issues relating to finances, HR, managing partner relationships, and the increased bureaucracy caused by having grant success.
  • How can PIs help to create a proper career trajectory for post docs beyond the life of a particular, time limited research project? Could Queen’s consider the introduction of permanent Research Fellow posts, retaining people in their posts?

What does the ideal research culture look like in this area?  How do we measure change?


Are there particular challenges presented by a) Covid-19 and b) equality and diversity?

  • There is a gender imbalance across Queen’s in terms of research, and the effects of this will only be exacerbated by Covid-19.
  • It is also important that the university makes clear all the protections that are being put in place to mitigate the effects of Covid 19 on careers and well-being, for example those who are shielding, or research students with caring responsibilities. Will these policies be uniform across the university?
  • It is important that the processes and practices we put in place now are not just a response to the immediacy of Covid 19, but set the direction of travel for the next 5-10 years.
  • It will be important for the university, in the upcoming transition phase, to understand and recognise the diversity of circumstances people are dealing with. The push to get everyone back on campus to promote ‘student experience’ may be at the expense of staff well being – work life balance remains a critical issue in this context.