Researchers lie at the heart of the UK research and innovation ecosystem.
Individually and in teams, within and across academic disciplines, researchers produce the insights and discoveries that underpin the knowledge economy of 21st century society and respond to new pressing challenges. This was clear in the essential contributions researchers in Wales and their universities made to pandemic response efforts in Welsh communities.
Researchers help us better understand the world around us, our pasts, presents and futures within it, and ultimately ourselves. They perform this vital work in an increasingly globalised and diverse research and innovation environment, developing their skills in complex organisations within and outside academia.
Given the increasingly varied nature of today’s research careers, it is important that all employers and funders of researchers work together to ensure that research staff have the healthy and supportive working environments that they deserve, and the opportunities for professional development and advancement that allow them to thrive.
This is the aim of what we call the ‘Researcher Development Concordat’: a living document that defines expectations, promotes best practice, and seeks to drive positive change in research culture and conditions across the UK. The Concordat is an agreement to improve the employment and support for researchers and researcher careers in higher education (HE) in the UK. It lays out obligations for funders (such as HEFCW), institutions (including universities), researchers, and managers of researchers in working together to realise its aims. It also provides a framework for working with institutions to promote positive working environments and rewarding careers for researchers, while respecting universities as autonomous institutions with varied missions.
Today we have published our Action Plan that sets out the actions we are taking and will take in the coming months and years to help implement the Concordat’s principles and improve researcher working environments and careers in Wales’s HE sector.
We play an important part as a funder and regulator in implementing the Concordat’s principles, and in working with HE institutions – many of which have signed up themselves – to address the pressing issues facing researcher careers today.
These issues are multifaceted and many are well-known inside and outside the higher education sector.
A high proportion of fixed-term research contracts harms the ability of researchers to build stable professional and personal lives, and raises challenges for institutions in developing appropriate training and professional development opportunities for a substantial corps of temporary employees. Long working hours and the pressure to publish impact on researchers’ health and well-being.
Certain groups remain under-represented at all career stages in the research base across the UK. The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened challenges for researchers, with pandemic-related disruptions falling disproportionately hard on early career researchers and those with caring responsibilities.
We launch our Action Plan in this context.
In our Plan, we commit to consulting with stakeholders on updating the terms and conditions of our annual research funding to require that funded institutions sign up to the Concordat. This shows how we are committed to the principles of the Concordat, and how we can use the tools we have as a funder to promote its implementation.
We also commit to continuing to fund flagship researcher career programmes like Sêr Cymru and Welsh Crucible, and to centre the issues addressed by the Concordat in other HEFCW policy development (such as our review of our research funding methodology) and in our regular engagement with universities.
The Action Plan also details steps we are already taking to promote positive researcher careers in Wales. These include the £7.6 million we awarded through our Higher Education Investment and Recovery (HEIR) Fund for ‘Supporting the Welsh research base during Covid’, an Aberystwyth-led, pan-Wales project to support research students, early career researchers, and research activities that have been affected by the pandemic.
We will report annually to our Council against the commitments in our Action Plan, and we will update the Action Plan annually to continue to reflect the steps we are taking to promote the Concordat’s implementation.
The Concordat emphasises the need for different stakeholders to work together across and beyond the HE sector to provide researchers with rewarding, stable careers and healthy working environments.
We are determined to play our part, and throughout our Action Plan we commit to working with other bodies and to do what we can within the wider research ecosystem to promote the principles of the Concordat.
Our Action Plan’s commitments represent where we have got to, and where we would like to go in the near future, but they are not the final word. They are a foundation for us to build on, and we welcome feedback from anyone on how we could be doing better and doing more. By listening to and working with others, updating our Action Plan, and holding ourselves to account against its commitments, we are confident that we can be an agent for positive change, and help ensure future researchers in Wales have the rewarding and healthy careers they deserve.
Ben Raynor, Senior Research Manager