The drivers shaping the future of research

Earlier today I spoke to The Culture Capital Exchange conference for early career researchers, 'Hack-a-demia: Future-proofing your academic career'. This post is based on the talk I gave.

For those at the start of their research careers there are many challenges and opportunities. In response, my advice to early career researchers is to consider not just the current and past settings within which research is conducted, but also consider the drivers that are shaping the future. And while it is easy to focus on the challenges, the opportunities are important too. Indeed, there is a real risk that ignoring the opportunities brought about by change is itself the biggest challenge. Building a career based on the world of the past is unlikely to succeed, grasping the opportunities will allow the early career researchers of today to shape the future, rather than be shaped by it.

In my view there are two important global drivers that are shaping the future of research.

Driver 1: Advances in digital technologies offer the prospect of revolutionising not only the dissemination of research, but also the processes of scholarship themselves.

It is a truism that digital technologies are shaping every area of life now, and clearly research is not immune. The artifacts of research are increasingly digital, which means that can be copied and transferred at almost zero marginal cost. Digitization also offers up new possibilities of analysis, processing and automation that will open scholarship into new directions, and potentially change the role of the researcher.

The early signs of this transformation are already visible. Open access publishing is becoming more and more prevalent, and alongside researchers are also making available data they have collected, analytical approaches and software, and primary source material.

Through blogs and other digital communication channels the process of research is becoming more open, even to the extent of sharing analysis and insight in real-time through so-called open notebooks. These changes, while most prevalent in the sciences, are also taking place across other disciplines.

Openness enables other innovations in scholarship. The possibility of an open and shared annotation layer is enabling new types of collaborative scholarship. There are new possibilities to link sources and evidence together. And the freedom that digital offers will allow research to be presented in whole new ways, allowing non-text-based formats to be used, and layers of content to be used for tailored interaction with specific audiences.

Driver 2: Global challenges and societal expectations are altering the focus of research, and require new ways of working with people beyond the academy.

Society expects more of research that ever before. Over the last decades it has become increasingly acknowledged that evidence limits our ability to respond to the challenges we face, and that research has a central role to play. The increasing focus on addressing challenges brings with it some important implications.

Challenges rarely map neatly onto academic disciplines, so in the future multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary work will need to become the norm rather than a fringe activity that only some engage in. To make this work we need not only to be able to cross disciplinary boundaries seamlessly, but also, and rather counter-intuitively, develop a stronger sense of the unique contributions that disciplines make. A clarity about the methodological and scholarly contributions that disciplines bring will allow them to be combined appropriately.

Addressing societal challenges also inevitably brings a need to truly understand the perspectives of those who experience the challenges, together with questions of choices about potential solutions. Researchers alone, however thorough and rigorous their scholarship are unlikely to able to address societal challenges alone. They will need to draw on different expertise, and involve a wide range of actors in the decision-making about research. Increasingly there will need to be a focus on co-produced research, and broad engagement throughout the research process to ensure legitimacy for the outcomes.

In addition to these global drivers, there is a further driver that applies from a national perspective.

Driver 3: For the UK, a combination of landscape reform and the implications of leaving the European Union will change the research environment significantly.

The Higher Education and Research Billthat is currently on its passage through parliament proposes a significant reform to the research funding landscape. The creation of UK Research and Innovation will change the environment for research funding, and offers considerable opportunities. In particular, there is the potential to address some of the structural concerns with funding across disciplinary boundaries. Given the undoubted focus now on addressing global challenges, UKRI will also need to focus on co-production and engagement.

Alongside these changes, there are some significant reforms likely to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), building on the recommendations of the Stern Review. Making the link between individual researchers and REF submissions less strong has the potential to introduce more flexibility into the research system.

At the same time, there will be profound changes to our relationship with research in the rest of Europe. While there is an understandable focus on the research funding that currently comes from the EU, it is important not to loose sight of how that funding is used. The UK system currently benefits from deep research networks into Europe. Potential changes to immigration rules will also have an effect on the future supply of talent to the UK.

Thinking about these 3 drivers suggests that it is undoubtedly a challenging time to be starting on a research career. There are also huge opportunities for researchers to make an increasingly important and relevant contribution. The key is to seize these opportunities and help shape the future of research, and beyond.