Do early career researchers in the UK and Japan have the necessary skills to collaborate across cultures and research fields?


In order to be successful as future research leaders who are actively engaged in solving the grand challenges ahead of us, early-career researchers need to develop broader skills than those traditionally learned as part of their Ph.D. or post-doctoral work. These skills include the need to work across cultures in an increasingly globally orientated research environment, as well as the ability to work across disciplines. Many of the grand challenges will require input from researchers from diverse fields, and will draw on perspectives and approaches from different countries in order to find globally-relevant solutions. Therefore, the ability to communicate and work effectively with people from different disciplines and cultures will be vital to the research leaders of the future. In addition, it is important that perspectives, skills and knowledge in other sectors are drawn upon, and for researchers to collaborate effectively with industry and the wider society. This is again a situation where communication and cultures can be very different and the ability to successfully work across these domains will be of great importance in their future careers.


To design and deliver a Researcher Development School with the following aims

  1. To develop future research leaders with the skills to lead in collaborations between different disciplines, cultures and sectors. 
  2. To facilitate the formation of active collaboration between participants to achieve tangible outcomes. 
  3. To develop a sustainable network of researchers across Japan and the UK


The Collaborating Across Cultures RENKEI Researcher Development School took place in two parts. The first two week long programme ran in Bristol in July 2013, with the second two week programme in Kyoto in December 2013. The theme of the School was ‘Urban Sustainability and Resilience’. These two cities were specifically chosen to enable participants to explore the theme from both a UK and Japanese perspective. 

 In Bristol the activities focused on skill development workshops, with topics such as communication, teamwork, presentations, an entrepreneurial mindset and working with industry. Participants also heard from a number of speakers working in the field of urban sustainability in Bristol and other parts of the UK. In week two they took part in a World Café to generate project ideas based on the School’s theme. The cross-cultural teams that formed to work on these ideas presented their initial plans on the final day of the Bristol School.

 In Kyoto, the teams presented more fully-formed solutions, which they had developed since the Bristol School, to industry representatives and the RENKEI organisers. They then went on to explore both Japanese culture and the theme of ‘Urban Sustainability and Resilience’ from a Japanese perspective during a series of workshops and talks. This then led to a second World Café, which encouraged them to come up with new ideas and solutions to the theme, based on what they had learnt in Kyoto. They presented these ideas on the last day of the Kyoto School.

 *World Café is an innovative approach to large group dialogue and brainstorming about key issues. The participants move around café style tables and their conversations with different people leads to a cross pollination of ideas. Ultimately, possibilities for innovative action can emerge from these discussions.


The main aim of the School was to develop interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research skills among the participants. In addition, the School aimed to support the participants in working on viable ‘solutions’ to the real and pressing challenge of ‘’Sustainability and Resilience,’ as well as to create a sustainable network of researchers.   These ambitious aims were achieved to a greater degree than the organisers had anticipated at the outset. 

Four teams were arranged around shared ‘responses’ to the ‘Grand Challenge,’ although every participant commented that they could have worked with anyone – a testament to the strong connections formed. Each team developed a unique working pattern, and all the teams were effective in developing their creative ideas, initially through a UK lens in Bristol and subsequently through a Japanese lens in Kyoto. 

Each team planned and gave a series of presentations in Bristol and Kyoto, which were delivered professionally and with great clarity and confidence. The informal feedback from the audience of academics and business representatives was extremely positive, and many said how impressed they were with the quality and comprehensiveness of the presentations. Participants also reported that their confidence in giving presentations was greatly increased during the School.

In terms of formal feedback, the participants were asked to complete online feedback forms both before and after the Bristol leg of the School, and after the Kyoto leg. On a range of measures, dramatic and significant positive changes in perception, knowledge and skills had taken place as a result of their participation in the School. 

Specifically, the participants felt that they were significantly more able to work across disciplines, with people from different organisations, and across cultures. They felt more able to work effectively in teams, take creative and innovative approaches, develop collaborative approaches, understand what was needed for an idea to be commercially viable, pitch an idea to industry and present their research to a range of audiences. They were also significantly more able to identify their own strengths and weakness, and understand personality differences and how these may affect working in a team. They felt significantly more confident about networking with people from different disciplines, with more senior researchers and with people from industry. Everyone said that they felt more able to participate in a UK-Japanese project in the future.

The personal testimonies were profound: many said that the School had been a life-changing experience, which had expanded their horizons and broadened their career paths. One typical response was: “I thought it was fantastic. Without exaggeration it was the best [four] weeks of my life! I learnt so much … the way it was delivered … was so much better than I have ever experienced before. The organisation of the event was excellent, the facilitators were all inspiring and the other participants were inspirational. It really was a fantastic and invaluable experience for me”. There was a shared belief that the relationships forged during the School would never be broken, and could be called upon at any point during their careers. 

Coordinating universities

  • University of Bristol
  • Newcastle University
  • Kyoto University


External links