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Culture and communication

The three amigos: chaos, Covid-19, (research) culture

Covid-19 has caused chaos in our research culture.

It will pose major challenges for some time to come – competitions for resources, pressure on time, when and how we can return to our labs, how to meet metrics that were flawed when they were set and are even less meaningful now. 

This could make an already problematic culture truly toxic, if we let it. Or we could take the opportunity of a world turned upside down to rethink research culture, and to focus on what unites us.

The story starts in spring 1989. I was 16.

I announced plans to backpack the 283km Offa’s Dyke path. Chepstow to Prestatyn, south to north Wales. Mum listened and let me go.

I remember much about that trek. Blisters, lots. Disdain towards my 20kg backpack. An aging tent. Chickens and sheep twanging guy-lines each night. Achievement, pride, reward.

Attitudes stick with me most. In rural areas, strangers said “hello”. In towns, people were busy and indifferent.

And though I didn’t realise at the time, plenty of subliminal messaging was on offer.

Offa, King of the English ‘Mercian’ warrior tribe in the mid-eighth century, repelled the “unruly Welsh” by building a barrier, or dyke.

Culture divided by country

Fast-forward 20-30 years. Now at the University of Nottingham, where, as with most institutions, metrics appear to rule. Income, margins, citations, impact, patents, teaching scores… The real stars? Metricised acronyms: KPIs, REF, TEF, KEF… 

Culture divided by metrics

Whether necessary or not, they cause collateral damage. People. Health. Productivity. Innovation. They create cultural divisions, not unity of purpose

They can create an environment that breeds anxiety and depression. I’ve written about my own story, which as the Wellcome Trust’s What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In shows, isn’t untypical.

If we are honest, the Wellcome Trust’s findings weren’t a surprise.

Then, with unflattering timing, enter the other two amigos. ‘Chaos’ caused by Covid-19.

We are only just getting to grips with the short-term economic impact of Covid-19 for a university. Workloads increasing, teaching squeezing research time and reductions in research funding. Such short-term remedies are essential for financial survival. 

But long-term? These could be damaging to research culture, mental health and motivation.


Not really.

Universities are powerhouses of innovation. Television, internet, computers. Periodic table, graphene, solar power. Penicillin, MRI, heart-lung machines. The list goes on. 

Immeasurable socioeconomic value.

But more so. A balanced research and teaching portfolio excites, impassions and motivates the scientific ecosystem. It enhances student experience via an immersive, curiosity-driven environment based on discovery and innovation.

Without this, will UK universities really be unique in a global economy?


Positive vs negative. Productive vs destructive.

1945. Psychologist, Karl Dunker, invented the “Candle Problem”. Challenge: With a box containing pins and matches, attach the candle to the wall so wax doesn’t drip on the floor.

Teams incentivised by a ‘stick’ (time, money, targets) almost always complete the task more slowly than those left to freethinking.

Dan Pink explains this in an inspiring ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’ TED talk. Dan tells how higher pay equates to better performance only in tasks involving mechanical skills. Larger rewards lead to poorer performance when even rudimentary cognitive skill is needed.

Dan argues success is best in cultures of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, urge to direct our own lives. Mastery, desire to get better at something that matters. Purpose, yearning to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

Have you heard of the company Atlassian? Neither had I.

But you should have. This Australian software company drives several university platforms, including Workspace.

Years ago, ahead of the curve, Atlassian asked staff to devote 20% of their time to ‘innovative stuff’ not associated with their day job. So successful, it’s been adopted widely; Google claims 50% of its innovation is from the 20% flex.

They established the right culture.

Before chaotic Covid-19, nearly 1,000 staff and PhD students from an exciting range of disciplines were preparing to unveil our new Biodiscovery Institute, where we are developing a strong ethos to research culture. 

Our hope is to foster… environment where everyone is valued, has a voice and can maximise potential. Where making mistakes is OK, concurrent with learning and accountability. Where equality and inclusivity of mental and physical health, gender, race or religion is the norm. To thrive, innovate and succeed with collegiality and trust.

And this is where Covid-19 offers opportunities in the face of adversity.

Recently, someone commented to me, Can’t wait to get back to how it was before Covid-19”.

Backwards..? Why on earth?!

Covid-19 has given us things money cannot buy.

Example. Before March 2020, how many bedrooms, living rooms, studies of your colleagues had you seen? What about their families, pets, partners? Scruffy hair, unshaven or even 'PJ days'?

Same questions now? What amazing insights we now have into our colleagues’ lives.

Noticed how collegiate spirits and “how are you?” rule now?

We have unified communities through commonality: Loaning equipment, innovating testing and sequencing Covid-19, plus the vaccine(s) quest. Sunflower growing challenges, ‘Science to the Kids’ packs, ‘virtual pub nights’… Newfound surfing expertise… of Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp. Incredible environmental and flexi-working benefits.

Positive changes that would’ve taken years. Achieved in days.

So, my challenge to you. Reflect and distil cultural positives from Covid-19 chaos. 

  • What have you learnt about your colleagues? 
  • What have you realised about yourself? 
  • What positives will you carry forwards in work and personal life?
  • How will you change for the better?

And, back to the start. How will you hybridise the best of The Three Amigos: Chaos, Covid-19, (research) Culture to define your future?

To finish.

In the Biodiscovery Institute, we have 70 initiatives to create unity and community to enhance research culture. Here are a few. 

AutonomyPromote freethinking across all job families/career stages. Embrace new strategic direction, e.g. Biofabrication, End-to-End Therapeutics. An ‘Engagement Theme’ driven ground-up by our talented research students and staff; their ideas, solutions, ownership, motivation. Their culture.

MasteryCelebrate. Successful PhD defences, honours, grants. Even matches (marriages) and hatches (births), we promote a positive and inclusive environment. This includes career development opportunities and training. My own mastery? Baking flourless chocolate cake with amaretto cream. 

PurposeDirection matters. Pioneering research tackling global challenges: Climate change, antibiotic resistance, chronic diseases, infections etc. Cultural unity through Art in Science, health and wellbeing and media engagement, leading to cultural engagement through a virtuous cycle. 

Fancy joining in…?!

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Chris Denning

Chris Denning is Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Director of the Biodiscovery Institute.

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