Myths about research cultures

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O'Donnell)

Water Dragon (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

As I was digesting information about the funding cuts a few weeks ago, I read Kate Bowles’ considered piece on the folly of applying an “efficiency dividend” to higher education.

At the time, I wanted to blog more specifically on the idea of applying such a mechanistic and corrosive idea as an “efficiency dividend” to research institutions and the effect it would have on research cultures.

When I sat down to type it up, I realised that it would be a long, tedious rant that no-one would want to read.

What I thought might be more useful is a post focused on myths about research cultures, and letting these cultures’ specific, complex forms speak for themselves.

Universities and institutes scrambling for pieces of the (often shrinking) grant pie is a narrative as old as time. OK, maybe not quite that old, but certainly old enough to scar the past few generations of academics and researchers. There’s the constant hope for a slice of the grant pie; sometimes, we make do with crumbs and, at other times, we go hungry.

As the pressures of chasing the funding dragon bite deeper into research organisations, many in senior roles talk ever more loudly about building research capacity and structuring researcher development. These strategies are meant to result in better and more research wins (and outputs), and institutional hopes of establishing a research workforce that’s upwardly mobile for excellence metrics (e.g. Excellence in Research for Australia) or other metrics that might come out of the oven.

Before I spend too much time mixing metaphors about dragons, pies, and baking, here are five myths about research cultures I want to debunk:

1. Tell your academics that’s what’s needed.

Just because a university decides that it’s time to get serious about research, and exhorts the academic workforce to focus and produce, doesn’t make it happen. Wanting it does not make it so. A multi-level bureaucracy like a university needs a clear strategy for growing research, but it won’t happen without the right investment of expertise, funding, and overall priority. You cannot get more or better research from staff who are already 100% committed with teaching and administration loads.

That said, what usually comes hand in hand with telling your academics that research must be ramped up, is the university deciding…

2. To throw money at it.

While having money thrown at research is better than not having money thrown at it, more money in and of itself doesn’t mean much. It definitely doesn’t make much of a difference in the shorter-term.

Building research cultures is all about developing capacity and expertise within a certain group. For example, suddenly offering ten scholarships in field X doesn’t create research culture in that field unless you already have good supervisors, research projects, and publications.

Getting to this stage takes time, healthy institutional morale, and staff goodwill. You can’t buy these things, but institutions do try. In particular, they love…

3. Importing research stars.

As the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), Australia’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), and other ‘research excellence’ exercises demonstrate, one of the sure-fire ways to boost a department’s profile is to bring in those with stellar research track-records. I have no problems with this as an occasional tactic, but the effect of researcher-raiding as a systemic exercise is quite another animal. As I see it, building research cultures – as opposed to buying in researcher CVs – depends on how much a researcher brings to a role besides their publications. Are they good mentors? Do they work well with teams and encourage early career researcher (ECR) development? What do their PhD students think of them?

There are researchers who are excellent at landing and completing big grants; if this is all they do well, is this enough?

4. Bring in the lions.

I’m a big fan of transparency, but many departments and faculties use ‘transparency’ as the reason why they might want to showcase researcher performance. It’s fine to create a collegial feeling of mutual momentum and achievement, and to be able to see where the strengths are in one’s unit. But when this kind of ‘transparency’ is used as a tool for shaming those who are seen to be underperforming, it can be counterproductive to building a research culture. Workload transparency? Yes. Researcher output? A bit more problematic.

5. It’s better to weed before you feed.

The worst thing you can do is to start sidelining staff as research inactive (or without research potential) before you’ve offered them support for their research and research funding plans. Have they been given a chance to perform – really? See point #1 about having appropriate infrastructure in place to let researchers grow and breathe; there is limited gain and much resentment to be fostered by applying research pressures to staff who have no room to negotiate research time.


What I hope this post demonstrates, besides my capacity for occasional hyperbole, is that research cultures are complex and easily skewed. It helps to think of them as ecosystems or tapestries – you can’t mess with one part of it without affecting the whole. This is why depleting (or “slowing the increase” for) university funding has significant, long-term consequences.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and also a research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Myths about research cultures

  1. Linda Brennan says:

    Well said Tseen

    I can add an insight from a long experience of watching how imported expertise leaves within a relatively short time frame and then leaves behind a legacy of demotivated and demoralised long time staffers who are wondering why they were never given the same opportunities to grow.

    If we want them we do need to be careful how we build sustainable teams. People come to a university because they enjoy the intellectual environment. When they come in as star performers with a preferential package of research support, it is not a good way to build a team and they tend to get excluded because the prevailing attitude is ‘of course we could do the same if only WE had the same opportunities’ and that is not a good start to a collaborative culture.

    Intellectual isolation is a key reason people up and leave but if our universities are serious about building research cultures they will work within the existing infrastructure and with people who want to be a team.

    That said, I have been wondering at what point the Australian government are going to ‘get it’ that there is not a long and extensive queue of unemployed PhD qualified A-star researchers waiting to be invited to take a pay cut next time they apply for a research grant. We are in a global market place for academic talent and we are lucky that right this minute other countries are worse off than Australia. This will not last much longer.

  2. Reblogged this on 21st Century Leadership Literacies and commented:
    Great work Tseen.

  3. Tseen Khoo says:

    Thanks for this considered response, Linda. You captured the detrimental effect of ‘importing stars’ (and having them move on) perfectly. Investing in staff who need significant development is a longer-term and less glamorous strategy, one that doesn’t sit particularly well when immediate (and escalating) improvement is what’s desired.

    I don’t foresee any major injection of research funding coming about, which would be necessary for Australia to pull ahead in the international research game. Canada’s huge investment in the Canada Chairs, which can offer 7-year project support, is a scale of commitment that successive Australian governments seem unwilling to make.

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