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‘Widen the doors into academia’ urges Ottoline Leyser


Arma 2021: UKRI chief says sector doesn’t welcome “full range of people that we need”

The chief executive of UK Research and Innovation has issued a rallying call to “widen the doors” and “take down the walls” of academia to encourage more diverse talent into the sector.

Speaking at the Association of Research Managers and Administrators’ 2021 virtual conference, Ottoline Leyser (pictured at the conference) said careers in research were currently perceived as “this extraordinarily linear thing where you basically go to university and never leave”.

“You do a PhD, you do a postdoc, you become a lecturer, you become a professor. Maybe, if you do leave, it’s a one-step into some equivalent-looking role in industry,” she said during a session hosted by Research Professional News.

The sector, she explained, has introduced “gateways” through academia, which are “far too narrow and don’t welcome in the full range of people that we need in the system”.

Leyser urged the sector to “break down this notion of the single linear path”, which she said “prevents building those connected landscapes that we see and crushes diversity in the system because everybody has had the same basic career experience”.

“We need to widen the doors, not try to get everybody to go through the same door, take down the walls so that anybody who has ideas that they want to contribute and skills that the system needs can come in and contribute,” she added.

“We’re stuck now in this system where we have this narrow set of rules, and all the stakeholders view the rules for winning as out of their control. We need to change them collectively.”

Psychological safety

To enable this change, Leyser highlighted the importance of ‘psychological safety’ in the research and innovation system, “where everybody in the system…feels safe to voice their ideas, disagree with one another, seek and provide honest feedback, collaborate, take risks and experiment, admit errors and ask for help”.

“If you can’t do these things there’s something seriously wrong and a lot of people currently don’t feel able to do these things,” she continued. “So, we need to shift the culture so that we can.”

Asked what UKRI was doing to facilitate non-linear careers, Leyser said it was important to have multiple interventions across the system, but that “you can’t do it with one silver bullet”.

Narrative CV

She highlighted UKRI’s work on a ‘résumé for researchers’, a narrative CV format where academics can “demonstrate their skills through a variety of different contributions”.

“One of the main things that inhibits people moving back into academia is that, by definition, they won’t have the academic track record that people who have been in academia the whole time will have, so a publication record will not look the same.

“At the moment that is a serious barrier to re-entering, but it shouldn’t be. There’s no reason why it should be at all. That’s something that is completely self-inflicted by the academic system and can change.”

Research Professional News is the official media partner for Arma 2021.