Research Leave Policy

By Marcus Munafò

The House of Commons Science Innovation and Technology Committee recently released its report on their inquiry into reproducibility and research integrity. One recommendation is that the sector moves towards “A coordinated policy on minimum protected research time for research staff”. This recognises the increasing pressure we are under as student numbers grow, external pressures on the sector grow, and so on. Whereas in the past there was enough slack in the system to allow us to spend a period focusing on our research, planning our next major project and so on, this has gradually been eroded over the years.

Fortunately, Bristol is already taking steps to address this.

The new Structure of the Academic Year is intended to “make changes to when and how we do things in order to deliver our quality educational offering in a manageable and sustainable way following considerable growth in student numbers”. And we have also updated the University policy on Research Leave. The Protecting Quality Research & Enterprise Time Task & Finish Group was tasked with investigating options for a common university approach to Research Leave, with the intention of establishing a common framework for Schools to work within.

The full policy can be found on the Staff HR Sharepoint.

A tablet in a person's hands with Research in large text on the screen
Original Image: Nick Youngson

The policy applies to all Pathway 1 academic staff on core-funded, open-ended contracts who undertake teaching and research. Schools may choose to include Pathway 3 staff (e.g., who conduct pedagogic research) in their policies if they wish, for example if this can be a step towards career progression. In general, Pathway 2 staff are not expected to be included in School policies, or eligible to apply, but can be in exceptional cases where this is appropriate (e.g., Pathway 2 Professors) at the discretion of Schools.

Importantly, the policy is intended to be flexible; it asks Schools to develop a local policy, and provides a number of principles to guide the development of these. One challenge is that individuals Schools may not currently be in a position to offer research leave, for example because it would be difficult or impossible to re-allocate specific teaching to other staff. However, by asking Schools to be explicit about this, we will develop better awareness of the coverage achieved across Schools and Faculties, and what is needed to improve this.

The policy is only one part of a wider framework – we have University Research Fellowships that can support targeted, focused research activity, and a Returning Carers Scheme to help those returning from, for example, parental leave to re-establish their research programme. The hope is that these different mechanisms can, as far as possible, be considered as part of a coherent framework that provides both general (e.g., the Structure of the Academic Year, the Research Leave policy) and specific (e.g., University Research Fellowships, Returning Carers Scheme) mechanisms to address our needs in an integrated way.



Celebrating Technicians – a look at the past, present and future of technical roles in higher education and academia

Research culture can mean a lot of different things to different people. From improving diversity across the University to enabling better work through infrastructure improvements, much of our work focuses on making things better. However, celebrating the fantastic people and the work being carried out across our institution is also vital to research culture.

In June, we held an event to celebrate our technical staff at Bristol and further afield. Technical staff facilitate and support research and enterprise while also playing a significant role in implementing our education programmes for undergraduates and postgraduates.

As Andy Connelly, one of our guest speakers, noted, we were inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at this event, hearing three excellent and informative talks on Technicians of the Past, Present and Future. Read on to hear more about each speaker’s background, what we learned, and some of the key takeaways from our interactive panel discussion.

Nik Okgyzko – UKRI People and Teams Action Plan

Nik is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which was launched in 2018 and is the largest public research funder in the UK, bringing together seven disciplinary research councils, Research England and Innovate UK, and funding £7 billion per year into the research system.

Technicians are a vital part of our national research community: they underpin and support our investment in research; they design, build and maintain a significant portion of our infrastructure; and they support our research outputs by offering expertise and often carrying out research itself.

Technical roles are incredibly diverse, from operating across the arts and humanities to supporting some of the most complicated scientific endeavours. UKRI supports technicians in four key ways:

  1. Ensuring technicians are recognised and rewarded fairly and effectively by employers
  2. Assessing what is rewarded and invested in within the technical career pathway
  3. Creating clear expectations and assurances concerning where their investments go
  4. Providing clear engagement as to how they support the research sector

Andy Connelly – Technicians of the Past

Andy’s research into the history of technicians was inspired by his career as a technician, where he didn’t necessarily feel valued compared to the work he was carrying out.

For most of the history of science, technicians have been invisible because they tended to be servants. During the 17th-century era of the scientific revolution, technicians were referred to as lab rats, assistants or servants. Part of these roles involved giving up autonomy and credit for their work, operating instead as extensions of their masters’ wills.

This started to change during the 19th century, as a number of large scientific institutions created a career pathway for technicians, recognising them as employees and offering some promotion opportunities. Michael Faraday, today a household name, started his scientific career as a technician. He attended and assisted in lectures supporting instrument and apparatus setup, and was responsible for cleaning, maintenance and repair. He also took on the role of valet when his master’s valet was unwell, further emphasizing the role of technicians as servants.

In the 20th century, there was a significant uptick in technical staff. Freda Collier, for example, developed photographs that became a key piece of evidence on the structure of DNA. Her role was recognised in the BBC’s 1987 Horizon documentary.

Catrin Harris – Technicians of the Present

The Midlands Innovation TALENT programme aims to advance both status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers in UK higher education and research. As the Research Fellow for TALENT, Catrin researches the technical community, the environments they work in and the challenges they face.

In September 2022, building on the work of Wellcome and ARMA on research culture, MI TALENT published Research Culture: A Technician Lens, which explores research culture from technicians’ perspectives. Some interesting statistics and takeaways from this work include the following.

  • Only 30% of technicians felt included in the research community and only 37% of technicians felt valued as a member of the research community.
  • 63% of technicians and 52% of non-technical staff and students do not think technicians are appropriately credited for their contributions to research.
  • There still exists an “us and them” culture between academic researchers and technical staff. Technical staff reported a number of issues such as negative attitudes, communication issues, bullying and poor treatment, and scapegoating when projects are unsuccessful or hit roadblocks.

Career progression is often highlighted as a challenge for technical staff.  A lack of clear career pathways means that technicians often have to move to management positions, resulting in a loss of technical knowledge and skills.

The full report makes for fascinating reading and highlights how we can improve the quality of our technical staff’s professional lives and career opportunities, and the sectoral shifts that need to happen in order to facilitate this.

Kelly Vere – Technicians of the Future

Kelly has been a technician for several years and is trying to shift the culture around considering technical colleagues and the skills they offer. The aim is to ensure our technical community is respected and valued and can work within a supportive and inclusive research environment. One of the first key pieces of work is a pledge to support the technical profession – the Technician Commitment – which so far has attracted sign-ups from over 115 organisations and institutions.

An understanding of the strategic position of our technical workforce is vital. To that end, the TALENT Board of Commissioners is made up of technical staff, academic staff, VCs and PVCs, directors and CEOs, ensuring broad representation. The TALENT Commission report looks at a vision of the future in which technical careers are respected, admired and aspired to. The key principles include:

  • strategic planning for sustainable technical skills and investing in technical career pipelines;
  • recognising the diversity of technical roles and reporting accurately and transparently on the demographic information of technicians;
  • creating a diverse and inclusive technical community which reflects the richness of society;
  • making technical careers and development visible, reducing the reliance on dropping technical careers to move into management;
  • giving technicians collaborative opportunities to influence decision-making, empowering technical staff to influence the future for themselves;
  • inclusive policy-making and representation, recognising the significance of technical expertise.

Panel discussion

Following this fascinating journey through the past, present and future of technical staff, we welcomed our panel to the stage to take audience questions. In addition to our speakers, we were joined by Jiteen Ahmed (Head of Technical Services, Aston University) and Ian Brewis (Chair, GW4 Technical Infrastructure and Knowledge Working Group).

With a panel covering such a broad range of the technical landscape, there was plenty to discuss and lots of questions from our audience. Watch the video below to hear the full range of discussions, but here are some of my key takeaways.

  • There has been a positive shift towards making technicians more visible and better supported, although there is work still needed in this space. This is a vital part of our wider research culture, ensuring that different communities within higher education have a voice and moving away from a hierarchical structure.
  • There’s plenty we can do to make technical careers more attractive. Pay is naturally at the top of the list, but training, development and support are vital, in addition to more concrete methods of acknowledging the work carried out, such as inclusion in research articles.
  • Developing technical staff networks and staff joining these networks helps with visibility, particularly further afield of your own institution. This is the same for institutions too – some of the greatest changes noted over the past few years have been when institutions have worked together, such as through the Technician Commitment.

What’s next for research culture at Bristol?

After a packed spring and summer of events, the University has received further funding from Research England to be spent on research culture activity, building on awards in 2021 and 2022. This is part of ongoing sectoral efforts to enhance research culture. The latest round of the Research Culture open call is now open for applicants, with a closing date of Monday, 19 September 2023. Read the full guidance on SharePoint and apply online (please note, this link will only work for University of Bristol colleagues). If you have any questions, please contact Gurjeet Kaur, Project Officer at

Histories of Tobacco

Earlier this month, we had the privilege of welcoming pre-eminent academics from a range of disciplines in the field of tobacco and nicotine research for our Histories of Tobacco event. At first glance, this might not seem like a Research Culture event like our others, but research culture is about more than supporting our students, staff and academics and celebrating the fantastic work already being done. Research culture also encompasses finding ways to foster innovative, multidisciplinary research by working with each other, rather than being siloed by our School, Faculty, discipline or research group.  

Tobacco and the research associated with it (both historical and present) is by its very nature a multidisciplinary field. The social history of tobacco can encompass subjects from the colonialisation of the tobacco plant from indigenous tribes in North America to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party’s ideological attacks on tobacco and alcohol. Different countries have approached tobacco legislation in vastly different ways, both currently and historically, and the roles of researchers, policy groups, government organisations and the tobacco industry have influenced our understanding of health issues and subsequent education (and re-education) campaigns and policies.

As Richard Stone outlined at our event, tobacco is also inherently linked to our institution and city. The Wills family, who contributed over £150,000 of the initial £200,000 required to raise a University Charter for Bristol, made their money through the tobacco trade. The legacy of their contribution, both positive and negative, still lives on in Bristol – as one example, people who live around the old tobacco factories that until relatively recently used to produce cigarettes use tobacco products more than the Bristol average, even though the factories are now closed.

Read on to hear from our four keynote speakers on their research across the field of tobacco, and do take a look at their published work – it makes for fascinating reading.

Patricia Nez Henderson – Vice-President, Black Hills Center for American Indian Health
Decolonizing tobacco: an indigenous perspective

Before tobacco was a globe-spanning product generating an estimated $35bn in profit per year, it was (and still is) a sacred plant for many Native American tribes. Used in healing and spiritual ceremonies, and one of the Navajo (Patricia’s own tribe) tribe’s four sacred foods, the US Government passed laws banning ceremonies and prohibiting ceremonial use of tobacco, whilst granting farming rights to colonisers to produce tobacco products and commercialise the plant.

This oppression of the indigenous culture coincided with the tobacco industry’s use of Native American imagery and wording to promote their tobacco products, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act permitted indigenous people to practice their ceremonial ways again.

Patricia’s work is centred around decolonizing tobacco, reframing the way indigenous communities use tobacco and educating on the difference between ceremonial and commercial tobacco. After 15 years of advocacy, the Air is Life Act 2021 creates a safe space for Navajo people – prohibiting the use of commercial tobacco products on Navajo land to return to a culture of honouring tobacco as a sacred product. Much of the discourse around tobacco doesn’t speak to the culture of tobacco, focusing on commercial and health aspects. The Air is Life Act represents a positive step towards indigenous people reclaiming an aspect of Navajo culture stolen by colonial powers.

Ian Tyrrell – Emeritus Professor of History, University of New South Wales
Before the “Cigarette Century” and after: tobacco, smoking and colonialism

There is no real tradition of historiography on the study of tobacco in Australia. Studies have become fixated with cigarettes, and with the major tobacco corporations, especially chewing tobacco and roll-ups. In recent years, the focus has shifted to smokeless tobacco, and these focus areas don’t reflect the broad swathe of consumption options and varied histories of these products. Until the post-1900 rise of cigarettes, only 3.4% of tobacco products were for leaf; snuff, smoking of pipes, and chewing plug and twist tobacco were all more popular forms of consumption.

The rise of cigarettes in Australia cannot be discussed without mentioning Big Tobacco’s marketing war on chewing tobacco, a calculated move to increase their market share which rapidly increased cigarette usage. The variances in national market preferences, patterns of class differences and patterns of urbanization make for fascinating study, and hopefully research in this area continues.

George Davey Smith – Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, University of Bristol
Cigarettes and death: a long and winding road

It is easy to assume that awareness of the dangers of smoking cigarettes is a relatively recent phenomenon due to improvements in health research, technology and statistical approaches, the discovery of tobacco’s health implications and subsequent policy decisions. In reality, we should consider this a re-discovery.

In late 19th-century discourse, cigarettes were referred to as coffin nails. There was recognition that smoking had a number of health implications. At a governmental level, perhaps the most famous example of anti-tobacco policy was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, who waged an ideological war on tobacco and alcohol consumption which included both policy and health campaigns. Military personnel were prohibited from smoking in uniforms, and the general population were prohibited from smoking in cars, indoors, and on university grounds. Tobacco capitalism is quite resistant, however! The German tobacco industry began rebranding their cigarettes for the stormtroopers of the Nazi war machine. Smoking also became a form of resistance and the counterculture in Germany, most famously in the Edelweiss Pirates, an anti-Nazi movement of working-class youth who fought the regime.

Raymond Pearl demonstrated major differences in life expectancy due to smoking, but his work did not significantly influence policy and discourse. This could be due to a myriad of factors. As a well-recognised public intellectual, he polarised views. The tobacco industry also opposed his work (and the work of others), running marketing campaigns countering Pearl’s arguments. Pearl’s controversial work on links between tuberculosis and cancer, and his findings on moderate alcohol consumption being better for life expectancy, all contributed to his work not gaining traction in social and policy discourse.

Virginia Berridge – Professor of History and Health Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
E-cigarettes and the politics of harm reduction: history, evidence and policy

The initial intended aim of e-cigarettes was to remove the part of cigarettes that was harmful – providing nicotine without the tar and carcinogens found in cigarettes. Owing to how embedded cigarettes had become in British culture in the 1950s, outright bans were impossible. “Healthier” cigarettes entered the market, but compensatory smoking (requiring more cigarettes for the same nicotine hit) meant that these made a negligible difference. The policy discourse has now shifted towards harm reduction rather than outright bans, in part due to the response to HIV/AIDS and the health benefits of preventative drugs.

The arrival of e-cigarettes as a nicotine replacement to enable long-term use rather than tapering off represented the UK’s changing stance from prevention to harm reduction. Nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and if it could be provided effectively as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved. Initially seen as an oddity, they gradually fitted into the UK regulatory system and saw increasing uptake. The nature of the UK’s political system also allowed implementation of policy at a national level compared to federalised states like the United States; with both major political parties very supportive of nicotine harm reduction, it is easier to pass policies and produce education campaigns on non-tobacco options for those dealing with nicotine addictions.

What’s next for Research Culture?

We have three more events left in our 2023 series of research culture events.

The Future of Teaching, part of our Future of Universities series, looks at the challenges and opportunities facing teaching at universities in the near future. This includes focusing equally on students and staff, the role of universities in equipping the next generation to succeed, and the nature of students as customers given the implementation and subsequent rises in tuition fees over the past 20 years.

Our final Future of Universities event, The Future Role of Universities in Society (Thursday 13 July), brings together a panel of experts across the key decision-making points of higher education policy. We’ll be discussing the role of universities in shaping the future of society and the public and political expectations of universities.

We then have our Festival of Research Culture (Wednesday 19 July), our flagship annual event, which celebrates the work across the University to improve our research culture, particularly showcasing projects that have received funding through our Enhancing Research Culture Fund. The event will give you an opportunity to discover interdisciplinary opportunities from outside your area or field of work and feed into ongoing work in this area. Hear from our Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Evelyn Welch, about the future of our research culture, and be part of discussions on how we can continue striving to make the University of Bristol an innovative, inclusive and collaborative research environment.


Future of Universities: The Future of Research

Last month I had the privilege of kicking off our Future of Universities event series. These events bring experts together from across the academic spectrum to discuss what universities could and should be like in 2033. The Future of Research delved into some of the challenges and opportunities facing research universities and those conducting research at our institutions.

Nigel Thrift, Emeritus Professor and University of Bristol alumnus, kicked off proceedings with a fascinating talk based on his new book, The Pursuit of Possibility: Redesigning Research Universities. He talked through some of the areas that require attention to ensure research universities can survive and thrive, including the University funding crisis and current regulation, and commented on how research universities are one of the few actors across the world who have the capacity to arrest the downward spiral towards irreversible damage to the planet that we currently find ourselves trapped in.

We then heard from a fantastic panel chaired by (as she put it) my “professional sibling”, Professor Michele Barbour, the Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Innovation. Michele was joined by a panel of experts from across the higher education environment who immediately got to work delving into how we can safeguard the future of research universities and equip our academics and prospective researchers with the tools, time and support needed to succeed.

With almost an hour of discussion and some thought-provoking questions from the audience, there were a lot of talking points! You can watch the full discussion on the recording below.

Thanks to our panel, whose various experiences cut across the higher education landscape, we heard a range of perspectives on what the future of research means. We considered topics from postgraduate researchers and the support (both in infrastructure and more holistic guidance) required to excel, to the synergistic links between universities and how we can leverage these to continue making an impact through research and help solve some of society’s most pressing challenges. Watch the full recording to find out what else we discussed.

The discussion was closed by Professor Evelyn Welch, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, who remarked on the higher education landscape as a community equipped to scope out solutions for these challenges and begin the work on putting this into place. My own work on research culture springs to mind, and the funding from Research England positions us to respond both proactively and reactively to some of the challenges in our research environment.

Next month promises to be a bumper month for Research Culture events and celebrates the diversity of what Research Culture can mean!

First, we have Histories of Tobacco, which looks at tobacco’s initial sacred purposes and its subsequent colonialisation and commodification. The history of this plant offers a fascinating case study of how research and attitudes of the past can help inform our future.

We then have our Celebrating Technicians event, which will focus on the vital role technicians play in the research process. Speakers from across the higher education system will highlight the excellent facilitation and vital research support carried out by technicians at universities across the country.

Finally, our next Future of Universities event, The Future of Teaching, examines the changes in the university landscape and how we, as institutions, need to adapt to safeguard higher education and best equip future researchers to change the world.

I hope to see you at one of these events in June!


Enhancing the transnational nature of research: uniting (de)colonial researchers at Bristol

What does decolonisation really mean, and how can it enhance research culture? 

by Tarini Bhamburkar
Postgraduate researcher, Department of English

The past few years have seen serious, guided efforts within the University of Bristol to decolonise its curricula, its library shelves and its teaching patterns. This has brought an increasing acknowledgement of the implications of slavery and empire as regards socio-political history and its repercussions in the contemporary world. But “decolonisation” is a weighty term, and often an overwhelming one when pondering on how to bring it “into operation” across the different teaching and research functions of the University.  

So, how do you bring it into research culture? 

Primarily, decolonisation, and the understanding of the transnational nature of history and literature, begin with acknowledging and addressing the legacies of colonialism and imperialism in literature and culture. It requires a critical examination of the narratives, systems and practices that have perpetuated colonial discourse and hierarchical relations throughout history. And it sounds like an intimidating task for someone to initiate on an individual basis.  

This is where funding from the Research England Enhancing Research Culture (ERC) allocation at Bristol was able to provide support. It helped develop a project uniting researchers at Bristol (and beyond) who worked on the literature of the British empire, postcolonial studies, settler colonial studies, transnational relations, histories structured by racial difference, etc, to form a network. With the help of symposia, reading events and awaydays, connections were fostered and formalised between scholars who have worked on different aspects of “decolonial” studies – to acknowledge empire and colonial history.

One example is an interdepartmental symposium that brought together scholars across the Schools of Humanities, Modern Languages and Law (see images below). It was a day dedicated to discussing the transnational aspects of colonial and postcolonial studies. Another is the Victorian Diversities Research Network event, which brought together scholars engaged in seeking new methodologies, to “widen” and “undiscipline” historical, colonial literary fields in the nineteenth century. 

Events such as these, and the wider project in general, have helped to re-emphasise the importance of diversifying and decolonising our syllabi, brought together researchers who work in colonial studies, and enhanced the transnational aspect of how we conduct research at Bristol. I personally hope to sustain the communities and networks that were formed with the support of the ERC funding, and even to broaden them if possible.

As postgraduate researchers, we do not often get access to such funding opportunities, so the ERC support came as a blessing – especially after a harrowing two years with very limited networking and communication. Scholars – especially postgraduate researchers and early-career researchers – enjoyed coming together on a formal platform and sharing their research, thereby facilitating a community of decolonial researchers at Bristol. 


Research and red tape – how we’re tackling bureaucracy

Image montage showing research at Bristol

Reducing excessive bureaucracy is one of many improvements we can all agree with in principle, but it’s often hard to achieve in practice. We’re on a mission, with the help of many of our colleagues, to make it happen.

We strongly believe that all staff involved in research activity – academics, researchers, technicians and Professional Services colleagues – should feel enabled and supported when writing and submitting research applications, setting up projects, actually doing the research, and generating outputs.

What we did

It was with this focus on enabling and supporting that we commissioned an Internal Review of Research Bureaucracy in 2022. In part, this was in response to the UK Government’s Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy led by Adam Tickell, and reflects our desire to foster a positive research culture at Bristol.

The review was open to colleagues at all career stages and across academic departments and Professional Services, in order to identify procedures and processes that are perceived as unnecessary, inefficient and/or disproportionate. The methodology for our review was to hold discussion sessions, which were conducted between July and September 2022.

There were nine discussion groups, eight of which were face-to-face. Views were gathered from 60 staff in total. The outputs from the discussions were documented and analysed to identify topic areas, issues, themes and key examples.

We’re very grateful for the time that our colleagues put into these discussions, and the feedback we received from the independent facilitator that ran the sessions was that the tone was very positive and constructive.

What we learned

The majority of the discussions could be grouped into six key themes.

  • General inefficiencies
  • Standardisation, self-service, and a ‘one size fits all’ perception
  • An emphasis on system working at the expense of working relationships
  • A culture of compliance
  • Proportionality (or a lack of it)
  • A focus on income over impact

The full report is available on SharePoint (UoB staff access only) and has been shared with and read by the Senior Management Team.

We certainly recognize the themes that emerged, and we appreciate the insight that it has provided into the reality on the ground, despite our ongoing efforts to improve and streamline how we work.

The report provides us with valuable information that will both feed into existing efforts to reduce bureaucracy and identify new challenges that we need to address.

It’s also worth noting that the Tickell review identified seven principles to cut unnecessary bureaucracy. These are principles that we fully endorse, and that we will return to as we continue to improve and streamline how we work. The principles the review outlines are:

  • Harmonisation: Reducing administration by using common processes to make core work easier.
  • Simplification: Reducing process complexity as much as possible.
  • Proportionality: Ensuring that burdens placed on researchers / institutions match the size of the risk or reward.
  • Flexibility: Supporting and embracing excellence beyond narrow and traditionally defined parameters.
  • Transparency: Communicating the rationale for systems that have a bureaucratic burden.
  • Fairness: Supporting fairness in systems and processes.
  • Sustainability: Reducing bureaucracy without destabilising, and whilst supporting long-term efficiencies.

What we’re doing

In practical terms, the work we’re doing that is either relevant to our own Internal Bureaucracy Review, or is in response to it, falls into three broad categories.

First, we are implementing practical change. For example, the University is in the middle of an extensive “End to End” review that aims to consolidate the entire research process (harmonisation and simplification from the Tickell review), from grant application to delivery (pre- and post-award). Several workshops have already been conducted as part of this involving researchers and Professional Services staff, and RED has plans in place to understand, for example, where bottlenecks exist in our processes per se and in particular the transition from pre- to post-award, e.g., setting up more complex projects (hiring staff, space, IT, budgeting…). The aim is to clarify why activities are needed and try to simplify them, or sometimes to remove them, and build shared approaches to our work (proportionality). We are also looking at the intent and purpose of our processes, asking questions such as: What is the risk? What’s the worst that can happen? How can we manage these proportionately?

Second, we are working towards longer-term cultural change. This includes work on management and leadership – in particular, to create a culture of leadership at all levels where we all feel empowered to make decisions locally. For example, if a process is acting as a barrier to our work, we should feel able to challenge it and even, if necessary (and with appropriate agreement – for example from a Head of School), temporarily circumvent it to get the job done. We also need to ensure that processes feel personal – one theme was recognising that whilst generic emails are used to provide resilience and continuity of service, we need to find ways to make the interaction responsive and personal. Other options, such as drop-in sessions in Schools so that academic staff can meet colleagues in RED, Finance and HR who support their work, may be one solution to this; it would also enable different services to provide more person-centric support. We need to ensure that we have a one-team ethos.

Third, we intend to continue listening and communicating. We have launched an Internal Review of Teaching Bureaucracy, given the valuable insights our first review gave us. This will be run in a very similar way to the first review, but with a different focus. We are also maintaining the Research Culture Dropbox, where anyone is able to send thoughts, concerns and suggestions, either anonymously or not.

We’ve also launched this Research Culture Blog to help us explain what we’re doing and the nature of and rationale for some of our processes, so that these can be better understood (transparency). Inevitably, we will still have to do some things that may feel bureaucratic, or at least burdensome, but hopefully by explaining the rationale the effort involved will at least feel worthwhile.

We are exploring the wider issue of our broader culture and decision-making at Bristol under the sponsorship of the Vice-Chancellor, including looking at how we can share more information and be more transparent about how we make strategic choices. This has been fed into the consultation on future academic and Professional Services governance and structures.

Next steps

Further workshops are planned to address the frustrations with setting up and running awards, requiring multiple needs to be addressed by several Professional Services teams working in a coordinated way.

We are scoping the possibility of a single virtual Research Office across multiple Professional Services functions, integrated with Schools and Faculties, which would be people-centred and facilitate sharing of best practices where needed – a “one-stop shop” for researchers.

Professor Marcus Munafò
Associate PVC Research Culture

Jon Hunt
Executive Director, Research and Enterprise


Winning a silver medal, or losing a gold?

Annie Vernon discusses the joy of failing, how to respond, and tips for those in academic careers.

Annie Vernon

Last month we welcomed Olympic silver medalist and award-winning author Annie Vernon to the University as part of our first Research Culture event in the 2023 series.

Annie has spent the past 15 years – following her race in the Women’s Quadruple Sculls final at the Beijing Olympics – thinking: Did we win a silver medal, or lose a gold medal?

Their quad won the World Championships in the three years before the Olympic Games, spent the majority of their race in the lead, and were set to make history as the first Team GB women’s boat to win rowing gold at the Olympics. The Chinese quad beat them on the line, and left the GB women reflecting on coming up just short.

Annie uses her experience of the extreme highs and lows of a career in sport to cast a spotlight on the way a lot of us view our professional careers. For her, failure was an equalizer. In order to improve, her more experienced colleagues in the quad had to go back to the drawing board too.

She reflected on the similarities between this situation and her partner’s career in academia. When research hits a wall, or an experiment produces an unexpected result, everyone is in the same boat – PGRs, early-career researchers, and researchers with decades of experience. It’s a vital part of our research culture as schools, faculties and an institution as a whole to respond to these situations as opportunities, not setbacks.

Annie also reflected on her time at Cambridge University and her participation in the annual Women’s Boat Race. You would expect that in a two-horse race, on the same course, the two universities would be swapping victory frequently. In fact, there tend to be five to 10 years of dominance from one team, before it swings back the other way. The reason why is simple: that’s how long it takes to acknowledge there are areas that can be improved, begin the process of fixing it, and embed these changes.

There is a striking parallel here between the Boat Race and our own efforts to enhance research culture, and part of the reason why this work is so important to the University. We want to create and sustain a research culture that values and celebrates the diversity of research and supports faculty, staff and students to achieve their goals. We have funded a fantastic mix of projects and look forward to sharing more details about them with you soon. For now, check out the upcoming Research Culture events below and register for your free tickets!

Research Culture 2023 events

Data Hazards Launch
29 March, Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building
Learn more about Data Hazards (such as High Environmental Cost or Danger of Misuse) and how to use them in your own research, and join interdisciplinary discussions around research data ethics. Data Hazards Launch – get tickets

Future of Universities: The Future of Research
20 April, Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building
What could future universities look like? What should their role in wider society be? Join us to hear a range of perspectives on how universities can evolve to remain a positive and rewarding place to work and study. This first event of three will focus on the future of research within institutions considering perspectives from researchers, funders and students. The Future of Research – get tickets

Histories of Tobacco
7 June, Watershed
The use and trade of tobacco has a long and complex history entwined with a number of global social issues, and Bristol’s role as a major colonial port during the slave trade must be remembered for the lessons we can learn. Join us to hear from experts on tobacco’s changing role through history, and how we can learn from the past to inform our future. Histories of Tobacco – get tickets

Celebrating Technicians
19 June, Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building
Technicians are a vital part of the research process, supporting and furthering the innovative and groundbreaking research endeavours at the University. Join us to explore the history of the role in academia, hear from experts on the importance of technical support, and forge new links across the University. Celebrating Technicians – get tickets

Future of Universities: The Future of Teaching
29 June, Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building
What could future universities look like? What should their role in wider society be? Join us to hear a range of perspectives on how universities can evolve to remain a positive and rewarding place to work and study. This second event of three will focus on the future of teaching within institutions considering perspectives from staff, students, and beyond. The Future of Teaching – get tickets

Future of Universities: The Role of Universities in Society
13 July, Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building
What could future universities look like? What should their role in wider society be? Join us to hear a range of perspectives on how universities can evolve to remain a positive and rewarding place to work and study. This final event in the series will focus on the role institutions play in society considering perspectives from government and other external stakeholders. The Role of Universities in Society – get tickets

Festival of Research Culture
19 July, M Shed
Thanks to two years of dedicated funding from Research England, we have supported academic, technical and Professional Services staff through a range of research culture activities. Join us for our annual celebration of these activities taken place to date, and a look forward to the future of research culture at the University of Bristol. Festival of Research Culture – get tickets


Research culture: enhancing the environment in which research happens

This piece was first posted on the Executive Team Blog in April 2022 and appears here with minor edits and updates.

Professor Marcus Munafò

In February 2022, I had the privilege of being appointed Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Culture. There’s been a great deal of interest in research culture in recent years – from the Royal Society and Wellcome, among others. And last year the UK Government published its Research and Development People and Culture Strategy. But research culture is a difficult concept to define and will mean different things to different people.

It can include how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward, including how we recognise diverse contributions to research and different research career paths. And there isn’t a single research culture: research groups, departments, schools, faculties, institutions and countries – as well as different disciplines – will all have different but overlapping cultures.

So, research culture is complicated; but it’s clearly also important. Those issues of how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward and recognise, impacts on not only our research outputs but also – more importantly – on ourselves as researchers, and our colleagues at all career stages (including the technicians and Professional Services staff who support research activity). A positive research culture, where people feel valued and rewarded, as well as both challenged and supported, is essential if we are to produce high-quality research outputs. It’s also vitally important for attracting and retaining the most talented individuals with values that align with the research culture we aspire to – a vision I’ve been working to co-create with the Bristol community since my appointment.

The creation of a role focused on research culture highlights the importance that we place on getting this right. We were also fortunate that this appointment aligned with the award of funding from Research England to “Enhance Research Culture”, which all institutions in England that receive QR funding received. With input from various parts of the University, we identified projects in four broad areas – Understanding OurselvesSupporting PeopleDeveloping Training, and Enhancing Infrastructure. These map onto the priority areas identified in the Research England Circular Letter, and those highlighted in the early-2022 Enhancing Research Culture meeting.

Examples of the areas we’re investing this funding in range from promoting the uptake of ORCiD IDs and providing open access fees for recent postgraduate students, through to support for emerging initiatives, such as the Inclusive Research Collective – which aims to educate researchers about biased and exclusionary practices in research. We’re also piloting an extension of Bristol’s reciprocal mentoring scheme, which challenges – and to some extent inverts – the traditional power dynamic of conventional mentoring schemes. It will be exciting to see how these projects develop, and we’re keen to ensure that at least some can be sustained beyond the initial funded period.

We were also able to allocate a substantial proportion of this funding to small-scale seed funding, which was open to applications from academic and Professional Services staff at all career stages. This scheme was considerably over-subscribed – testament to the grass-roots enthusiasm for activity in this space. Unfortunately, this meant that we couldn’t fund every proposal, but we were able to fund a number of exciting projects in a range of areas, including several led by postgraduate research students. The hope is that we will be able to secure further funding in the future to support more projects. Until then, this activity will help to foster new and innovative approaches to promoting a positive research culture.

It’s already clear that there’s a great deal of exciting activity across Bristol. Linking that activity together, and supporting it, has been a key part of my new role so far, and we have been able to continue to support some of the projects we funded through the initial round of seed funding, as well as run a second round of funding. Another has been listening to colleagues to better understand what people think we are doing well, what we could do better, and to find out more about what’s already happening. For example, we recently completed a review of research bureaucracy, and will be sharing the results of this shortly.

I remain keen to hear from anyone who’d like to contribute to this process. If you want to talk about research culture, find about more about what we’re planning, and help us improve how we work, do get in touch!