The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, pledged in 2019 to make the UK a “science superpower”, by doubling public investment in R&D to £22 billion per year by 2024-2025. But that promise was made before the pandemic hit the public finances, and in the lead-up to the UK’s first three-year spending review since 2015, the research community was left guessing whether all of this would materialise and how.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review has now been announced with positive if mixed news for research. The £22 billion target remains but the deadline for reaching it has been pushed back to 2027. And R&D investment by 2025 will now reach £20 billion per year.
While some will be disappointed by this, the clarity it brings is helpful, and the research community can now shift attention to working out how extra investment can generate the outcomes that the UK wants and needs from its R&D system.
Decisions about research investment should be based on evidence
Whatever the overall budget, it is important that this money is spent wisely and fairly. And that the research it supports is efficient and impactful, otherwise we risk wasting significant amounts of time, effort and money. So how do we do this?
If we were tackling another kind of problem, many would start by applying the standard methods of research: empirical measurement, hypothesis generation, experimental testing and so on.
Ironically, when it comes to R&D policy, the research community is often reluctant to use the tools at its own disposal—leaning instead on gut feeling or opinion, rather than data or experimental evidence for the best way to spend budgets.
As recently as July 2021, UKRI’s outgoing chair Sir John Kingman said, "If I look back on many years of involvement in political decision-making and policy-making around science, innovation and R&D, I am struck by how much of it tends to turn on [the] gut feel of the individuals involved, [rather] than on hard evidence and analysis”.
Using research on research to design effective R&D systems
Many have been banging this drum for a long time, and these arguments are now receiving fresh impetus from advocates and practitioners of metascience and research on research.
Investing small amounts in these activities is far cheaper than spending billions on projects that may not deliver what’s needed. The outputs and insights of research on research should also be practical and useful, delivering tested solutions for policymakers and funders.
RoRI was established to support and expand these efforts. Through our connected network of funders, partners and researchers we’re gathering data, testing ideas and turning theories and evidence into solutions to improve research culture and systems.
For example, we’re:
- testing how well lottery-style funding works and sharing practical guidance on how others might approach partial randomisation in grant allocation
- evaluating new ways research can be peer reviewed, published and communicated
- challenging and broadening definitions of ‘excellence’ in how research is evaluated.
Work with us
In the UK and elsewhere, the research community needs to ramp up such efforts if we’re to make better use of the resources available.
RoRI is ramping up too. As our pilot phase comes to an end, we’re seeking more project opportunities and partners to join us. If you are interested in working with us from 2022 onwards, please contact James Wilsdon, Director of RoRI on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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