Fostering a Research Culture in Nursing


Research serves to enhance human understanding. It is not just about the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Hopefully, it will be not only useful but also enriching. In nursing, research is a relatively new activity that has developed rapidly and the discipline has undergone a transition where research has migrated from the margins to the centre of its concerns.

However, doing research and developing as a researcher takes a good deal of time and effort. Unfortunately, though the importance of research as a legitimate activity is increasingly being recognized, many nurses receive inadequate training, often compounded by poor supervision and mentorship, lack of a clear focus, and superficial outputs.

Curiosity, creativity and a passion for ideas seem to be outmoded. Only rarely do we see scholars in nursing who study a particular topic with single-minded devotion (Thompson and Watson 2001). In the current climate the focus is on short-term, small-scale research projects conducted by individuals with limited experience, time or support. This is influenced to some extent by the vagaries of funding for nursing research (Rafferty et al. 2003), and the idea of research programmes over many years with a group of dedicated researchers is rare (Thompson 2003).

The language of research is very much concerned with productivity. Individuals are now frequently judged in terms of whether they are ‘research active’, i.e. are they ‘productive’, and this in turn is measured in terms of ‘output’. Managers of research often speak in terms of ‘deliverables’. Nowadays, it is increasingly common to quantify research, although exercises claim to assess research in terms of quality rather than quantity through the process of peer review. Usually, as part of a research assessment exercise, mention is made of research culture.

Fostering a research culture is something that is frequently stated but rarely articulated. In essence, it should be about developing a climate in which research is not only valued and seen for its intrinsic worth, but is also considered an integral aspect of routine activity in an organization, whether it be, for example, a university or a hospital.

Research culture may be described as shared values, beliefs and assumptions, and behaviour arising from these. It is thus a collectively held set of attributes, which is dynamic and changing over time. On one level research culture can refer to an organizational culture in which research can play a significant role or, on another, to the characteristics of the research topics, methods and process. It refers to what researchers do and why they do it, and thus relates to their motives, values and philosophy.

It is interesting to see how an organization perceives — values, classifies or includes — and supports (or does not) its researchers. A research culture will only be evident when there is a common language about research and some shared agenda, such as ideas, methods and processes that are sanctioned as appropriate.

A variety of factors will determine the success of fostering a research culture, including the history, tradition, size, type and stability of the research group. For instance, are there issues of territoriality, do researchers work as individuals on their own or is there collaboration? Subcultures and counter-cultures are apparent in any organization and are often seen as threatening to the dominant culture. For internal integration to occur, people must learn the research language, boundaries and rules of the game. Thus, the induction and socialization of new staff is essential in enhancing or establishing a research culture.

It is often difficult to identify and decipher a research culture. Symbols include seminars and editorships. It is often apparent that there is a cumulative building of research from small-scale projects to programmes. Some organizations have strong researchers (the ‘stars’) and these can add great value.

Leadership is crucial to the research enterprise and to the success of fostering a research culture by providing guidance and motivation. In order to generate a vibrant and thriving department, there is a need to support and nurture the growth of research and the researchers, and to encourage curiosity, independence, imagination and creativity.

What is required is a strategic plan with clear targets. Therefore, research goals, which are short-term and immediate, and research objectives, which are long-term, will need to be specified. The strategic plan should also take account of research ideals, which are ultimate pursuits that may or may not be attained but which are deemed worth pursuing. However, none of these targets will be attainable unless the conditions are created under which research can flourish. Apart from staff, time and resources these will include a stimulating and challenging environment, a research mentorship programme, and administrative and secretarial support. There is also often a need to balance teaching loads. Recognizing, promoting and publicizing the research activities and individuals of an organization are also necessary to foster a research culture.

Although it would be naïve to ignore the tensions that exist between the bureaucratic control exerted by organizations and the creative spirit of research, a return on investment of optimism and encouragement can be a significantly enhanced research environment.

Changing the culture is sometimes necessary for revitalization. This needs to take account of (using a culture map, for example) factors such as: the dominant ideology; the locus of power and decision-making; the organizational structure; career opportunities and paths; communication; ‘heroes and villains’; stories and anecdotes; rites and rituals; and image.

All organizations must develop a degree of coherence in their culture for them to be able to function effectively. Nursing is no exception. In order to gain knowledge and understanding and for there to be intellectual enrichment there needs to be cohesion and collaboration amongst staff working to a common agreed goal, even though they may individually have diverse interests, skills and ambitions. Involvement, empowerment and commitment are all important factors. In terms of research, fostering a cultural system in which the various parts of the organization are all working to a common end can only be to its advantage.