Are we ready for more research on research?

This week has seen the launch of a new initiative, the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), a partnership involving Sheffield University, Wellcome, CWTS Leiden and Digital Science. RoRI launched with a conference packed with both fascinating content, and many of the global key players in Research on Research both on and off the platform. For more background you can read an introduction to RoRI from James Wilsdon, its Director, and summaries in posts by Athene Donald and Richard Jones.

This is a very timely initiative. As I have argued elsewhere we need better evidence to inform decisions about research funding and policy. At the same time there are new sources of data and analytical approaches that have the potential to revolutionise our understanding, some of which I have written about previously. RoRI offers a real opportunity for a step change in the gathering and use of evidence to inform research policy, especially given the global outlook of the institute.

A question remains, however: are we ready for more and better research on research?

By ‘we’ and mean both those of us who make and implement research policy and funding decisions, and also the research community itself. And the reason I am questioning whether we are ready relates to some of the possible outcomes of exposing the processes and practice of research to the scrutiny of robust research.

Research on Research will sometimes confirm what we think we know about what works. On other occasions, though, research will deliver counter-inituitive findings and challenge the status quo. An example, which I have written about previosuly and featured at the launch event, is the work of James Evans and colleagues which challenges the assumption that teams are always best for effective research. Or the emerging evidence coming for a number of sources that random allocation of funding to researchers may be as effective as peer review in some circumstances. Or the building sense that the ‘meritocracy’ of the research system may itself act against diversity and inclusion. Research funding agencies will need strong leadership to respond to this evidence, and be prepared to carry out unpopular experiments.

At the same time, more Research on Research may also highlight the trade-offs inherent in any complex system. Flexible and responsive funding systems may inevitably lead to challenges in supporting early career researchers, so we need to balance these objectives and accept that the best system may not be optimal for either. Similarly, there was much talk at the launch event of broadening definitions of research excellence, but with an implicit assumption that the system can simultaneously deliver all the positive objectives that we would like to see. Maybe there are trade-offs here too, and so choices that have to be made?

The Research on Research Insitute is a great step forward, and I look forward to its efforts to improve the evidence base, synthesise existing evidence, and explore innovative ways to provide insight and tools to support better decision making about research at all levels. At the same time we need to ensure that the research system is ready to assimilate and act on the evidence. Funders, research leaders and researchers themselves need to acknowledge that acting on the evidence might mean doing things differently to achieve better outcomes.


Written on October 5, 2019

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