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Good practices

Two faces of excellence

Veridiana Scarpelli

The Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research foundation based in London, has launched two initiatives aimed at gathering information about the behavior of scientists and the environment in which they work. On one front, it invited researchers to complete an online questionnaire asking about working conditions and relationships with colleagues and superiors, as well as sensitive topics such as bullying and mental health. The goal is to determine to what extent the ongoing pursuit of excellence, which guides how funding agencies select and evaluate research projects and is a prerequisite for high-quality science, also fosters a culture of rivalry and hostility that can impact the personal lives and careers of students and researchers.

“People tell me about instances of destructive hyper-competition, toxic power dynamics and poor leadership behavior—leading to a corresponding deterioration in researchers’ wellbeing,” wrote Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy James Farrar on the foundation’s website. “Based on these points of view, we will work with the community to develop ambitious goals that describe the research culture we all want to see and encourage other funders to join us,” said Farrar. The results will serve as the basis for a report with suggestions on how to make laboratory and university workplaces a friendlier environment without affecting the quality of the science.

The second initiative involves the creation of a consortium of researchers from various institutions to investigate scientific cultures and policies. The Research on Research Institute (RoRI) will operate from the Wellcome Trust in its first two years, and is a partnership with the University of Sheffield in the UK, Leiden University in the Netherlands, and London-based private enterprise Digital Science. “Worldwide, interest is intensifying in how research is funded, practiced, and evaluated, and in how research systems can be made more efficient, open, inclusive, and impactful,” said James Wilsdon, a professor at the University of Sheffield and director of the new institute, summarizing the body’s ambitions. One of the areas the RoRI focuses on is positive and negative attitudes in the research environment and causes of distress for researchers.