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Kindness alone won’t improve the research culture

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Is science unkind? If so, how can it change? Julie Gould finds out.

Calls to change the research culture have grown louder in 2020, as COVID-19 lockdowns led to extended grant application and publication deadlines.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, will researchers adopt more respectful ways of communicating, collaborating and publishing?

Anne Marie Coriat, head of the UK and Europe research landscape at the funder Wellcome, tells Julie Gould about the organization’s 2019 survey of more than 4,000 researchers. The results were published in January this year.

“We know that not everything is completely kind, constructive, and conducive to encouraging and enabling people to be at their best,” Coriat says.

“We tend to count success as things that are easy to record. And so inadvertently, I think funders have contributed to hyper competition, to the status of the cult hero of an individual being, the leader who gets all the accolades.”

But what else is needed, beyond a kinder research culture? In June, Jessica Malisch, a physiologist at St Mary’s College of Maryland, co-authored an opinion article1 for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calling for new solutions to ensure gender equity in the wake of COVID-19. “We can’t rely on kindness and good intentions to correct the systemic inequity in academia,” she says.

Katie Wheat, head of engagement and policy at the researcher development non-profit Vitae, says that researchers who feel that their manager or their principal investigator (PI) is supportive and available for them during the pandemic have better indicators of well-being than do those who are not getting that support.

“A PI might also be in a relatively precarious situation, reliant on grant income for their own salary, and for their team’s salary,” Wheat says.

“You can be in a scenario where the individualistic markers of success put everybody in a competitive situation against everybody else, rather than a more collaborative and collegial situation where, where one person’s success is everybody’s success.”

Coriat adds that “we put people in management positions. We do not necessarily treat it as a skill that needs to be developed.”

“We don’t value it, we don’t recognize it, we don’t reward it. I think that’s one of the issues when we're thinking about how we support people to develop in their careers,” she says.


This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland (UQ).

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day. Find out more about this content.


  1. Malisch, J. L. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 15378–15381 (2020).

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

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Is science unkind? If so, how can it change? Julie Gould finds out.

Sponsor message 0:00

This six part Working Scientists podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

Julie Gould 0:19

Hello, and welcome to part five of this six part series from Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast all about the postdoc. I'm Julie Gould.

Over the last few months, I've spoken to 28 different people from around the world about what the postdoc is, and the postdoc experience.

All of these conversations have been very different, which is no surprise, given that everybody has had a different experience.

But there has been a common thread amongst all of my conversations, which is that there is a lot of talk about changing the research system, the research culture, the academic research culture.

So let's have a look at what the research system is at the moment. I've spoken to Anne Marie Coriat, head of the UK and Europe Research Landscape at UK research funder Wellcome.

She's been working really hard to try to understand what the current research system is, and what aspects of it need to change. This was something that was heavily discussed in September 2020, when she led a conference organised by the Research on Research Institute called Reimagining the Postdoctoral Experience.

And actually, in January 2020, Wellcome published its results from a survey they ran to try to find out what researchers think of the research culture.

Anne Marie Coriat 1:40

So when we think about the research system, and we look at, you know, what it is that people are happy with, and what they value, it's the creativity, it's the ability to discover things for the first time, it's the ability to work at the cutting edge of knowledge.

What we also know is that not everything is completely kind, constructive, and conducive to encouraging and enabling people to be at their best.

And we've known these things for decades. In many ways, concerns about supervisory structures and competence, concerns around transitions to careers that are outside of academia, concerns about the fact that what we like to do, or what we tend, to do is we count success as things that are easy to record.

And so inadvertently, I think funders have contributed to hyper competition, to the sort of status of the cult hero of an individual being, you know, the leader who gets all the accolades.

We inadvertently also, I think, have not necessarily supported adequately the way in which people develop their own skills and talents.

And also we narrowly sort of look at a range of outputs when we're looking at, you know, how productive has someone been?

Julie Gould 3:11


he current Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated some, if not all of these issues.

And for postdocs a particular challenge is living on short term contracts. It makes for an unstable living situation, and many are worried about future job prospects.

Mostafa Shawrav, chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association, hears many stories from colleagues and from the Marie Curie alumni about the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic is having.

One of the things that has happened over the last few months is that many researchers haven't been able to go to the lab to set up key experiments and to collect data.

Now some funders have offered extensions to postdoc contracts, although sometimes these are non funded.

sAnd this allows the postdocs to finish their project

But this hasn't always worked well for everybody says Mostafa, when he tells me a story about a colleague whose supervisor hasn't supported them,

Mostafa Shawrav 4:05

The university decided to extend all the contracts. But if you need to extend the contract for Covid, if your supervisor asked, the university will provide the money, but the supervisor does not want to extend the contract because he wants to use that money for something else. So this is a real example. This is happening everywhere.

Julie Gould 4.23

When Mostafa told me this, and granted I don't know the whole story, it did seem rather unkind.

So I asked him what he thought about that.

Mostafa Shawrav 4:32

Probably unkind isn't too soft, I would say, in time to time it's cruel, the behaviour they have done to the postdocs, especially to the postdocs.

Julie Gould 4:42

Now, this got me thinking about kindness in academia on a bigger scale, and whether or not there's enough of it.

I spoke to Katie Wheat, who is the head of engagement and policy at Vitae UK, which is a charity that works hard to support the careers of early career researchers. She said that kindness comes in two flavours

Katie Wheat 5:00

I think kindness in academia can mean a lot of different things. I think collegiality is a big part of that, how you work with other people in a kind way, having patience, respect, they're all important elements.

But that's thinking of kindness at the very individual level, how individuals are kind to each other or unkind to each other.

And I think one of the factors of kindness in academia is thinking about how the system is kind, what the systemic factors are, that bring true unkindness or a perception of unkindness, or potentially a perception of unfairness in the system.

Julie Gould 5:43

Now, I'm sure you're all familiar with this because it's been well documented that academia is riddled with unfairness, with inequality.

If you identify as a woman or you are disabled, or you are a person of colour, you experience pay inequality, power inequality, service burden inequality, the list goes on.

Jessica Malisch is an assistant professor of physiology at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

And she is also the Director of the Office of Research in epidemiology at her local health department.

Now, while she was working from home over the last few months, with her three kids, she somehow managed to find the time to pull together a group of women to help her write an opinion piece for PNAS about the inequalities within academia, and how the pandemic has shone a light on them.

And this article, and many others that have been published on this topic, are important now more than ever, exactly because the inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

And Jessica says that in some ways, this is actually a silver lining.

Jessica Malisch 6:43

It's increased the attention that the inequities are receiving the downside or the catastrophic effects, right, like there's research comes out daily that women are publishing less, they're applying for fewer grants, the amount of time they have to devote to work is significantly less than their male counterparts.

There's plenty of evidence that this pandemic is affecting some groups much more than others.

And so the bonus is that ny highlighting that what is highlight is that these inequities were always there, we weren't doing enough about them.

And now that there's no margin for error anymore, that you can't lean in anymore, and now you're just not productive enough, is making it apparent that those inequities need to be addressed. And they should be addressed just for the fact that for ethical reasons, right, these aren't, it's not ethical to beequitable. We also know that diversity is is a bonus for academia, like diverse groups do better research, they have better results, academia does better with diversity, and so beyond, we should do it because it's better for academia.

And it's also the ethically correct thing to do that, you know, academia now really does have to look at how equitable the institution itself is.

Julie Gould 7:59

So I wanted to go back to this concept of kindness. And I asked Jessica, if she thought that maybe just a little bit more kindness might solve the bigger problem of the inequalities in academia.

Jessica Malisch 8:09

There is the same level, I think, of kindness among academics as there is in the world.

And could there be more kindness in the world?Probably.

But then there's the issue of kindness and good intentions being looked at as a solution in academia to inequity and power imbalances.

And that I think, is an issue, right, because we can't rely on kindness and good intentions to correct the systemic inequity in academia.

Julie Gould 8:40

Okay, so it might not solve all the problems within academia.

But it might make a big difference to many people's lives, particularly to the postdoc community, who, due to the very nature of their career position, could really do with a more nurturing environment says Anne Marie Coriat from Wellcome.

Anne Marie Coriat 8:56

if you're in an environment that is so tightly focused on working on the basis of sort of hyper competition, short term results, delivery, not thinking about your personal development, not challenging you in a sort of constructive way to you know, stretch yourself and think about ideas, giving you some freedom to explore and fail, and, you know, come back, then actually, that can be quite damaging in how you view your own capabilities.

It can be quite damaging in terms of how you then think about research, either as a career or a set of skills, and it can undermine your confidence in the products that come out of research.

So kindness, I think is a hugely important facet and that that is not the same as being a unrigorous. Rigour is hugely important.

Julie Gould 9:52

Anne Marie said this is a challenge because the incentives to make this happen aren't there.

Anne Marie Coriat 9:58

If you're looking after mentoring, supervising, guiding a postdoc, you have to remember that you have somebody's career in your hands.

And surely what we ought to be trying to do is to enable that individual to be creative, and to be their best.

The challenge with all of that is that the way we incentivise or reward performance doesn't necessarily enable that kind of culture to be recognised.

We currently do very little about valuing leadership and management.

We do very little about valuing the way in which individuals go on to develop their careers where you know, I think, personally, the best metric is, are they still using their skills?

And do they still feel relatively positive about you know, the training that they experienced. We tend to cut to the chase and say, are they still in research or industry. Tells you nothing about how it worked, and how trusting they are of the system itself.

So I think it's alignment of incentives. And it's actually funders, publishers, all the rest of it, walking the talk, as well as just saying, saying these things.

Julie Gould 11:16

This brings me back to what Katie Wheat from Vitae was saying, that kindness was at an individual level.

The problem is that unkindness often comes from the stresses that the research culture puts on the researchers themselves, particularly on those supporting the postdocs,

Katie Wheat 11:33

If that individual is kind, and and you know that concept of kindness can mean so many things, if that individual is facilitating opportunities, developing that person in their career, supportive.

And I think that, that has huge benefits.

So we've seen, for example, during the pandemic period, that researchers who feel that their manager or their supervisor is supportive, is available for them, they have better indicators of wellbeing, than researchers who are not getting that support.

So I think that's one example of where, where postdocs can be in a scenario where they do need, and rely on that support of somebody else.

And, that person, that PI might also be in a relatively precarious situation, reliant on grant income for their own salary and for their team salary.

And so I think you can be in a scenario where the individualistic markers of success put everybody in a competitive situation against everybody else, rather than a more collaborative and collegial situation where, where one person's success is everybody's success.

Julie Gould 13:05

I've already mentioned that Ann Marie Coriat at Wellcome has looked at the research culture, from the perspective of the researchers in the hope that it'll help shape how changes are going to be made in the future.

And one of the things that the research culture survey looked at was the mentoring relationship and how it affects the mentee.

Anne Marie Coriat 13:23

We hear very strongly from researchers that how they are managed makes the biggest difference to how they perceive themselves, and they go on and look at their own careers.

And when we're looking at leadership skills, if you ask academics whether or not they feel they're a good manager, the stats are quite interesting.

You've got 44% who value who say that their institution value good management.

You have 80% of researchers who say they have the confidence and the skills to manage a diverse team.

And then you have only 48% saying they've received formal training.

So there's a real mismatch.

And I think it's those sorts of things about, you know, we put people in management positions, we don't necessarily treat it as a skill that needs to be developed.

We don't value it. We don't recognise it, we don't reward it. I think that's one of the issues when we're thinking about how we support people to develop in their careers.

Julie Gould 14:28

This is actually echoed in the data that has come out of the first ever postdoc surveyed run by Nature this year. And you can go and check it out on the website.

So what can supervisors and those supporting postdocs do in order to create a kinder working environment for postdocs?

I'm going to throw back a few years to 2017 when I actually spoke to two people for the Nature Careers podcast about supervisors and supervision.

One of those conversations was in an episode called meaningful mentoring which is still available online for you to listen to.

The conversation was with Saso Kochevar. He's the Founder and Managing Director of HFP Consulting.

He coaches science researchers in leadership, communication and conflict management.

I just want to share a few minutes of our conversation with you about what he thinks it really means to be a supervisor in academia, which is also being a leader in academia,

Saso Kochevar 15:20

I think it's very important that supervisors learn to change their attitudes.

This would be a change in the paradigm of how they see themselves as researchers and as leaders in research.

People who lead research groups need to realise that their role is not only be an expert in science, but a leader of people who do science.

So you need to devote more time on the human interaction and the people who are around you, they deserve that.

They need you, they need your time, attention support, and this is part of your job.

Many PIs have not really understood that there is a whole universe of young talented and motivated people who work in science but have never been properly trained how to deal with human interaction, how to deal with topics like conflict resolution, how to lead properly, how to delegate properly, how to manage time.

Julie Gould 16:23

So how can we help those supervisors learn to answer these questions?

I don't know what to do with my career. I'm not sure science is the right thing for me, what should I do? Let's use that as an example.

So what if someone approaches a supervisor with a question like that? What's the first thing that they should do?

Saso Kochevar 16:44

The most common mistake is you hear the question and immediately your brain connects this question to your life experience and to all the solutions that you have found in your life for how to handle specific challenges.

And then you provide a solution before even understanding what the real worry or concern of the student is.

And this is why the listening is so important,

Julie Gould 17:11

The thing that PI and supervisors do need to be careful of is and to not make assumptions.

Saso Kochevar 17:17

Assumptions are poisonous. Because you assume something, you mix up your own experience your own situation, your own drama that you went through, with the challenges that the other person is facing.

If you just assume people will not feel that you really understand them.

And what you want to develop is a trustful relationship, people need to feel that they are understood.

So, and this is why you should be very careful with assumptions. rather ask more questions and go deeper into the understanding of the situation. so that the person who is listened to will feel ah, okay, my, my boss really understands me.

This is the precondition for people to feel safe, respected, connected. This is the precondition then also for for them to relax, and to be able to develop on solutions,

Julie Gould 18:21

You can listen to the rest of the episode to find out what Saso says about building that trusting relationship.

And the thing is you have to build that trusting relationship from the very beginning. That is really important.

So when you start a lab, it actually can be really daunting to become responsible for a group of people when you have just become a PI. It's a skill that many new PIs haven't actually been taught.

And it's actually one of many skills, according to many of my interviews.

So what can you do if you're in this position? This actually brings me to the second interview from 2017, which was with Angela De Pace from Harvard University.

If you've listened to any of my other podcasts for Nature Careers, you'll know that I'm a very strong advocate for the IDP or the individual development plan.

It is a fantastic tool that will help you take control of your own career development.

Angela told me in the episode called How to start and run a lab that she used this tool from the very beginning, in order to help develop a relationship with her postdocs, with her researchers in the lab, to help them set their goals and to help them meet their career goals.

But it actually also taught her a lot about herself and how she can improve as a mentor. as a supervisor.

Here's a bit from our chat, where she explains why she started using the IDP when she first set up a lab.

Angela De Pace 19:43

We're not given a whole lot of leadership or management training as scientists. And so while I was I got started thinking about how I was going to be responsible for this group of people it was really important to me to understand how I was doing

And I felt like the people who are most qualified to give me that feedback was the people that I was leading.

And so I really wanted to know, you know, how can I define my success as a mentor? Well, that's by getting people where they want to go. So how can I figure that out? I have to know where they want to go. And then they have to tell me how well we're doing getting them there.

And so that's actually the sort of ethos behind an individualised development plan, but I came from it from a very personal perspective of wanting to run my lab in an effective way.

Julie Gould 20:32

What, in your opinion, is the most valuable thing that you've learned about your own mentoring style from these IDPs?

Angele De Pace 20:42

The most critical thing is that I'm much more collaborative than I ever realised in the sense that the collaborative aspect of science is a really critical part of it for me, and that making a really good collaborative culture can come out of the exercise of doing an individualised development plan with everyone because it's, by its definition, sort of clarifying everyone's perspective.

Julie Gould 21:13

So we've heard that plans are afoot to improve the research culture. Wellcome in the UK is trying to understand what people think about the current research system.

And Katie Wheat from Vitae told me that Vitae UK actually published actually republished the Concordat to support the career development of researchers in September 2019, which, when an institution signs up to it, will make sure that people are held accountable for the way they do science.

And so will also mean they're held accountable for the environment in which the science is done.

Now, on an individual level, if a little bit more kindness is added to the system, it could go a long way to making sure that these environments. these local environments, are just a little bit more pleasant to work in, and who doesn't enjoy working in a pleasant environment, right?

Now, we've only got one more episode to go in the series. And I'll actually be going back to the question that I asked at the very beginning in the first episode, which was what is a postdoc? And I'm going to try and answer it based on what I've learned along the way.

We'll hear from Anne Marie Coriat, from Jessica Malisch, and from Christopher Hayter, and many others about what the postdoc is.

And whilst you're waiting to find out why not check out the postdoc survey results and write ups from Chris Boston on the nature careers website, you can find forward slash careers. Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 22:53

This six part working scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland. UQ research creates change right across the world every day.


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