Guest Blog: Changing Research Culture by the Inclusive Research Collective
This month, I welcome the Inclusive Research Collective team to thegratefulacademic.com. This collaborative team of researchers are challenging the status quo on how research is practiced, by promoting inclusive and diverse academic environments and by challenging biased and exclusionary methods in the research process.
They talk in this blog about how the collective started, and the importance of promoting representative and equitable science.
collective / kəˈlek.tɪv/ adjective
of or shared by every member of a group of people
In the summer months of 2020, three members of the Faculty of Life Sciences in the University of Bristol set up the Inclusive Research Collective (IRC); a grassroots organisation project with a common aim to change science research for the better.
Our starting point was to look at our own research areas and engage in a process of self-reflection. As scientists we are taught to adopt the 'scientific method', an empirical method to identify unknowns, use the correct techniques and methodology to solve problems and analyse data to tell us if some difference is significant. We are so focused on objective processes, that we forget how we as humans influence our research. We don’t get the space to question if the science we have been taught and now practice is fair or representative.
We formed the IRC to create a space for researchers to think about these things – to think about how their personal identity influences their perception of the world and their work, question the status quo of research, to imagine how science could be improved, and to identify and challenge the barriers to that improvement.
You don’t need to look far to find an example of biased and exclusionary practice in science research. One example from the life sciences is that research is more commonly carried out on male experimental animals. There are many reasons for this: historically, men were more likely to be conducting research which, coupled with a narrative of male dominance and importance, led to a vested interest in male identities being studied. Additional concerns surrounding confounds of hormonal cycles and impacts on fertility meant females were excluded from experimental participation. Our understanding of physiology is therefore skewed towards male physiology. One societal impact of this is that medicines and treatments are often better suited to the male physiology.
Of course, when research involves human participants or is concerned with societal issues, it is clear to see how our biases can reinforce societal prejudice or exclusion. One of the more challenging aspects of the IRC’s work is to raise awareness of bias and its consequences in research far-removed from people. For example, how does ‘common practice’ use of certain chemicals limit our discovery of new compounds? How do our expectations of what we see in our data inform the conclusions we draw and the data we choose to ‘trust’?
In the IRC we want people to think beyond their specific research niche or technical area. It is not sufficient to just identify the issues and barriers to improvement within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) environment, but also questioning their foundational assumptions and the impact of their research. By bringing people together in interactive workshop series (for example our ‘Becoming an Inclusive Researcher’ and ‘Inclusive Research Practice’ workshops) we encourage discussion around topics such as whether science can ever be truly objective or value-free, the importance of reflective and reflexive research practice and the environmental impact of research.
Inclusive research practice is deeply connected to inclusion in the academic environment, and we have a strong emphasis on research culture throughout our projects. We hold ‘lived-experience’ talks highlighting identities which are under-represented and under-served in STEM, with a particular focus on intersectionality, such as (Queer, Trans and /or Intersex Person of Colour (QTIPOC) in STEM and ‘Womxn in STEM’ events.
From each event, actions can be taken away by participants to be implemented at a personal, School, Faculty or University level. One example of the impact of this is the introduction of Risk Assessments for LGBTQ+ Staff and Students on fieldwork or overseas travel, written in collaboration with members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Another way the IRC gets researchers thinking about their positionality and challenging their assumptions is through The Learning Forum. This is an informal monthly discussion group, currently run, in 2022, by two PGR students, Luke Burguete and Laura Mediavilla Santos, looking at intersectional issues in society i.e. Race and the Gender Binary, Racism and Healthcare. This is a space to discuss, in a safe manner, topics that might feel uncomfortable. The focus is on honest conversations and self-learning, not condemnation or criticism.
Sometimes it can be hard to feel positive or grateful when you spend so much of your time focusing on biased and exclusionary research practice and academic environments. The UNESCO Science Report 2021 revealed that women are still less likely to access funding, with only 2.3% of venture capital going to start-ups set up by women, and women in academia received less grant funding, even though they were twice as productive.
Despite this, there is hope and positivity to be found. As a group, we have been incredibly fortunate to receive financial support from the University of Bristol, The Biochemical Society, The Wellcome Trust and we were recently approached by the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor for Research Culture at the University of Bristol, who assisted us in obtaining Research England funding to look at enhancing research culture. One of our priorities has always been the fair payment of speakers, and this funding has enabled us to do that.
Most importantly, we are very grateful to have met the members of the collective, all who volunteer their time and work tirelessly towards making a positive difference, and to have been able to work with the amazing speakers at our events, who are helping us grow and develop our understanding of a range of lived experiences. We have had the opportunity to collaborate with some incredible groups, such as the Creative Tuition Collective which runs Decolonising Science workshops around the UK.
We feel our work is having a real and positive impact on the research environment and we are excited for the future of the IRC. We are currently developing two courses for the University of Bristol looking at Inclusive Research and are in talks with several groups for collaborative projects- you can find out about all our work via our newsletter (sign up here).
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About the authors:
Amber Roguski and Luke Burguete are PGR students in the School of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience and Dr Caroline McKinnon is the School of Biochemistry and Faculty of Life Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead at the University of Bristol. They have guest written this blog on behalf of the Inclusive Research Collective. Find out more at Inclusive Research Collective. You can also contact the group by emailing inclusiveRC@gmail.com or messaging @inclusiverc on Twitter.
The race against time for smarter development | 2021 Science Report (unesco.org)