Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine through a sensemaking lens the transforming nature of scientists’ work role in public research organizations (PROs), resulting from organizational innovations in the form of collaborative culture. Design/methodology/approach – Based on a symbolic-functionalist theory of work role transition, the paper uses interview data from a case study to explore scientists’ sensemaking of work role change. Findings – Work role transition and identity processes among scientists in traditional PROs reveal tensions regarding organizational restructuring to the extent that organizational innovations are changing scientific work conflict with organizational norms, procedures and reward structures in hierarchical, bureaucratic PROs. Research limitations/implications – As the paper is based on only one case study, further research should be carried out on the difficulties involved in transforming the nature of the scientific work role and the way scientists recognize, contradict and make sense of changes. Originality/value – The novelty of this paper is in th eun-discussed role of organizational innovations in enabling new work roles for scientists in public research centers and how scientists make sense of and react to these innovations. Therefore, this paper could be beneficial for PROs facing pressure to restructure.