Changing research culture one step at a time

When the Crick was established, we knew that we had the opportunity to create a different culture for research. The Crick's Chief People Officer Fiona Roberts shares our experience of working to build a positive environment for doing great science.

Wellcome’s campaign to build a better research culture is an important contribution to a long-running debate about how to improve the work culture in research organisations. 

It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while at the Crick. The ways science and academia have worked in the past have not always made for a supportive, inclusive and creative environment.

When we opened our doors, we knew it was an opportunity to do things differently. The question was, how? Three years on, we’re not saying we have the whole answer to that question, but our experience may contribute to the debate. 

It started at the design stage for our building. The Crick was constructed as an open, airy structure, with glass walls and open doors between labs. The aim was to make collaboration as easy as possible, but it also means that conversations and interactions are open and visible.
Then, we wanted to make sure everyone knew what to do if those conversations didn’t feel respectful.

Taking steps

Staff were telling us they didn’t always feel confident to speak up if they had concerns. So we introduced respectful communications sessions to give them the skills to step in. We’ve also introduced unconscious bias training, to help people treat everyone with the same degree of respect. 

We have an active Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee, led by James Briscoe, one of our senior Group Leaders. We’ve recently earned a bronze Athena SWAN award recognising our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, and we’re applying for Stonewall accreditation as a good employer of LGBT+ people. 

We know it’s important to establish the right culture from the top, so we’ve launched a leadership development course for our senior staff, and we have a well established Staff Consultative Forum, where people can raise issues in a supportive environment. I meet the forum monthly, and other directors go along to meetings regularly. 

We know we still have more to do on this. Things don’t change overnight. But we do believe that if you create the right culture they can be better.

Sam Barrell, our Chief Operating Officer, also holds regular drop-in sessions where anyone in the organisation can go and talk to her about things they want to raise.

We recognise the stress felt by many researchers, highlighted in Wellcome’s research culture campaign. We’re working hard to support people’s mental and physical well-being with a number of initiatives and activities, including having a cohort of staff trained as Mental Health First Aiders ready to step in and help anyone whose mental health is suffering for any reason. 

Measuring progress

So is it working? Well, we’ve just done a survey of all our staff. The good news is that 85% said they are proud of the Crick and happy to work here, and 75% said they’d actively recommend the institute as a great place to work. Over 80% believe they are treated fairly and with respect. 

A small minority, however – 8% – say they have experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work. That’s in line with other similar organisations, and much lower than levels of bullying reported in Wellcome’s recent survey, but that doesn’t stop us from being concerned about it; it’s 8% too many. So we’re launching a campaign to make sure everyone knows how to speak out if they need to, and feels supported to do so, along with an anonymous hotline for people to call. Overall, our message is that bullying, harassment and discrimination is never OK at the Crick. 

We know we still have more to do on this. Things don’t change overnight. But we do believe that if you create the right culture they can be better – and we hope to prove that through what we’re doing at the Crick.

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