Collaboration, competition and culture: fostering excellence in research

“culture eats strategy for breakfast”
— Attributed to Peter Drucker

Striking from the outside, and strangely calm and peaceful within, the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) building has the feel of a futuristic temple to a new religion.

In the world of research this is indeed a special place. Some of the most important breakthroughs in biomedical science have been made here, recognised by an astounding ten Nobel prizes awarded between 1958 and 2013. It has been called a ‘Nobel prize factory‘.

But beyond the undoubted scientific success there is also impressive delivery of broader benefit. The new building was, in part, financed from income from technology developed from the institute’s research.

Visiting in 2014, I asked the Director, Professor Hugh Pelham, about the secret of LMB’s success. His answer was deceptively simple – it’s all about getting the culture right.

The answer begs a question – what makes a successful research culture? From national policymaking to the operation of departments and units within universities, getting the culture right is a central concern.

At HEFCE we recently commissioned the Policy Institute at King’s College London and RAND Europe to explore the factors leading to a successful research culture. They focussed on those departments that were in the top 1.5 per cent of performance in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), across a range of disciplines and institution types.

The findings stress the importance of talented people – their recruitment, retention and autonomy – alongside appropriately balanced leadership and a living and shared sense of strategic direction.

These high performing units also shared a set of common values; a sense of research that makes a difference, and a focus on achieving the highest standards of excellence and integrity. And there was a strong sense of research as a collaborative endeavour. These findings mirror those of an earlier study that focused on the UK’s most research intensive institutions.

A rather different picture is painted by a study carried out by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics during 2014. Based on a survey and discussions, mainly with researchers from the life sciences, this work identified some areas of common ground, especially around the values that motivate researchers.

But the study paints a picture of an excessively competitive research culture, focussed on individualism. According to this view the intense competition for funding, and the conditions imposed by national policy structures, like the REF, are pushing researchers too hard.

The Nuffield Council say this is leading to some of the best researchers leaving, with particular concerns for the diversity of the research workforce. In the most extreme cases, the report speculates, the pressures result in misconduct and even fabrication of research results.

Threaded through these different understandings of how our research culture operates is an inherent tension; the balance between collaboration and competition.

And there is a clear message taking the studies together. The Nuffield Council work suggests that, across the sector, researchers feel the balance is too strong towards competition, but in the places that are most successful that balance is different.

While the outside environment is the same, the highest performing units appear to have a more of a focus on a supportive collaborative environment.

This balance between collaboration and competition is even reflected in the REF submissions themselves. Despite the REF being set up to compare performance of institutions, analysis in HEFCE showed that around a quarter of journal articles submitted as research outputs involved researchers from two or more UK institutions.

If there is a variation in culture across the research landscape, how can good practice be spread? This is not an easy question.

The culture of any organisation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, which is influenced in many ways. Debates about culture, and culture change, tend to focus on the policy environment.

The REF, or the processes for obtaining project funding are often blamed for perceived problems. But these policy conditions are themselves influenced by other factors, not least academic culture itself.

Institutions have their own cultural norms too, and that can lead to very different interpretations and responses to the external environment. For example, some institutions respond to REF by focussing their strategy on performance in the exercise, while others concentrate on research performance itself, arguing that success in the REF will follow.

As well as their institutional culture, researchers find themselves embedded in disciplinary culture and norms that transcend the boundaries of institutions and even nations. It could be argued that researchers are most sensitive to these pressures; meeting disciplinary norms is essential in building individual research reputation and drives career success.

Faced with this complex milieu, influencing a positive research culture through policy change is a daunting task. At one level, minimising the barriers to positive behaviours has a role to play.

At a national and institutional level, we need to ensure that collaboration, across institutions and disciplines, can happen, for example. But providing incentives to actively encourage activities needs to happen in a sensitive way that respects – goes with the grain of – existing practices and norms.

We shouldn’t expect too much of these interventions, though. As is emphasised by the King’s College/RAND study, leadership is central. Although it is perhaps unfashionable to focus on research leaders in this way, leaders have the potential to interpret, filter and make sense of the diverse pressures that come to bear on the researchers they lead.

While culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast, a research strategy that focusses on positive culture change is perhaps the way to go.

This post was first published in The Protagonist, issue 3, by ARMA and Research Media Spring 2016