Nurturing a positive research culture

Monday 17 June 2024

A Fellow of St Catharine’s is sharing practical advice on how to nurture a positive research culture within a laboratory and across an organisation. Professor Adrian Liston (2023), Professor of Pathology at the University of Cambridge, has co-authored two articles in response to a new emphasis on the importance of research culture in the UK’s funding landscape. The first article has just been published in the journal Immunology & Cell Biology.

He said, “The choices made by the leadership of a lab or an organisation – intentionally or more often than not unintentionally – can determine their research culture. There are cultures where researchers operate in competition (what I would call a toxic culture) or, with a bit of luck, you may encounter more positive research cultures, which tend to grow organically from the kindness and integrity of team members. Over successive generations, researchers have perpetuated cultures that were linked to past achievements. Unfortunately this hasn’t weeded out negative tendencies, because some researchers can succeed in a toxic environment in spite of – rather than due to – that research culture. We need to take a more deliberate approach to establishing positive research cultures within our organisations.”

Professor Adrian Liston with members of his team in his laboratory
Prof. Adrian Liston in his laboratory


The new emphasis on research culture was clear in June 2023 when the four higher education funding bodies in the UK1 announced that the Research Excellence Framework 2029 will have an expanded definition of research excellence to encompass people, culture and environment. This is on top of the £30 million already announced by UKRI’s Research England in 2022 to enable higher education providers to develop and initiate activities that will enhance research culture across the sector. 

Professor Liston explained, “There has been a recent sea change in attitudes at the highest levels of government and funding bodies, who now accept that research excellence is not only fuelled by the quantity and quality of outputs, but also by people, culture and environment. Personally, this change is very welcome and I am excited that we now have a fresh opportunity to rethink the research cultures that we are perpetuating, break bad habits and nurture positive ones.

“If we want to replicate the advances seen in other areas of scientific practice in progressing research culture, it is vital that we share best practice, examples and mechanisms that benefit our field. I know from my own experience that an individual early career researcher might only have worked in two or three different research cultures before deciding how they want their own lab to operate. I hope these two articles offer a toolkit for others to draw upon and inspire further discussion about different aspects of research culture so we can harness the collective experience of labs and organisations across the world.”

Female scientists in Professor Adrian Liston's team
Team members in Prof. Liston's research group


The first article in the pair identifies the actionable areas where organisations can create and reinforce a positive research culture:

  • Aligning staff recognition to the organisation’s missions;
  • Designing the organisation structure around the mission and the people;
  • Building a respectful environment;
  • Openness and transparency; and
  • Equality, diversity and inclusivity.

Each area is accompanied by frameworks, examples and/or other resources for readers to review and adapt according to their organisation’s needs. While Professor Liston and his co-author Professor Denise Fitzgerald work on similar research themes and have chosen to publish with Immunology & Cell Biology, their arguments are relevant for other academic disciplines. For example, their argument for organisations investing their energies at all levels of the ‘respect pyramid’ rather than relying entirely on punitive actions against toxic behaviours like bullying and harassment:

“The most visible interventions for nurturing a respectful environment (punitive actions against toxic behaviour) should also be the rarest, in the same way that the hospital is the last resort in creating a healthy environment. Underpinning this “emergency care” should be strategic positive interventions, rolled out when environments are suboptimal but before they reach a critical stage (analogous to treatment by a family doctor). More pervasive still should be the underlying fabric of the organisation, supporting a culture of respect, with individuals, in particular those in leadership positions, taking personal responsibility for their interactions.”

A figure illustrating the 'respect pyramid', with text reading 'Respectful environment - punitive actions against toxic behaviour - strategic use of positive intentions - supporting a culture of respect - personal responsibility for interactions' and 'Healthy environment - hospitalisation - general practice treatment - public health interventions - healthy lifestyle'
The respect pyramid provides the basis for building a respectful environment



Adrian Liston and Denise C. Fitzgerald. Nurturing a positive research culture within your organisation. Immunology & Cell Biology. 2024; 1–10. doi: 10.1111/imcb.12795


1. The Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Scottish Funding Council and UKRI’s Research England.