Research on Research

By | 11th October 2019

Unfortunately the residual effects of some significant surgery this summer prevented me from attending the recent launch of the Research on Research Institute (RoRi). This initiative has the laudable aim of better informing funders and policymakers about “how research is funded, practiced and evaluated, and… how research cultures and systems can be made more efficient, open, inclusive and impactful.” It is receiving significant support from the Wellcome Trust and Digital Science “to build an international consortium of funders, academics and technologists committed to transformative & translational RoR”.

A great deal of research funding and policy is indeed poorly evidenced, driven by outdated theories and prejudices about the virtues of ‘great men’, and neglectful of the significant body of social science research on leadership and teamwork….Nevertheless, RoRi cannot help reminding me of one of my favourite papers: ‘The Informers’ Tale’ by Lee and Alexandra Benham….

This summary does scant justice to the wit of the original. However, it brings out a substantial point about the nature of professions and information. I recall a piece of doggerel from my school days:

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite’em

Little fleas have smaller fleas, and so ad infinitum.

Research on research fills a gap in the world of knowledge. However, it is important not to confuse it with the research enterprise itself or to assume that this will benefit from being made so planned, rational and evidence-based that the result is to squeeze innovation out of the system. Funders need to assess and manage risks – but they also need to take them…

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