By Jonathan Best (Insight Manager), Adam Dinsmore (Program Manager), Chonnettia Jones (Director of Insight and Analysis),  Wellcome Trust

Published: 29 January 2020

On 30 September 2019 the Research on Research Institute was launched at the Wellcome Trust bringing together 150 funders, policymakers, publishers, academics and technologists from across 22 countries to drive collaboration and advance our understanding of how research systems can be made more effective, open and inclusive.

What is research on research?

Research on research isn’t new. Its origins can be found in the 1960s - notably in science and technology studies, innovation studies and scientometrics to name a few. In recent years it has attracted more disciplines and is often referred to as “meta-research”, “meta-science” or “science of science.” The Research on Research Institute aims to bridge these communities, providing a ‘lens’ through which we can organise, analyse and advance a breadth of disciplinary, theoretical and methodological approaches to answer questions about the design, operation and evaluation of research systems. It intends to play several roles:

  • Support and build capacity for interdisciplinary, mixed-method and translational RoR in and across research systems worldwide;
  • Connect academic RoR capabilities to the data and analytical resources of our founding and strategic partners;
  • Experiment, coproduce and test new tools, indicators, funding modes, decision and evaluation frameworks; 
  • Critically evaluate RoR methods and support engagement with RoR data and evidence by decision makers and wider society;
  • Create an independent space for RoR learning, networking and collaboration between researchers, policymakers, funders & technologists.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates nearly 2 trillion dollars are spent annually on global research and yet much of the evidence that exists around how funders can best support research is fragmented and poorly joined up. Consequently, concerns have been raised that current ways of funding:

  • tend to favour shorter-term, lower-risk projects rather than longer-term, higher-risk research with transformative potential;
  • are unnecessarily resource- and time-intensive for researchers;
  • are beholden to an array of quantitative metrics which are harmful to research and researchers.

How did Wellcome start its research on research journey?

It started with the launch of the Wellcome Success Framework, a tool which made us define what we wanted to achieve as an organisation. This required a new understanding of how best to achieve it – to distribute our funding in the most efficient, fair, effective and beneficial ways possible. To do this we needed to better understand our own funding practices and how they could be improved to enable research and innovation.

We started talking to researchers and practitioners of research on research, alongside funders and publishers to understand questions about the practice of research. It became clear to us that the evidence available tended to be narrow and dispersed, and rarely generalisable or actionable. During the next two years the idea of forming an international consortium to formally investigate the practice of research came up again and again and in May 2018 we were given the opportunity to form a unique collaboration involving academics and technologists.

We partnered with the Universities of Sheffield and Leiden, and Digital Science, with each partner providing a different and valuable perspective on the research system. Over the last year, the founding partners have engaged with research funders from all around the world to consider how best to structure the consortium and catalyse a new generation of translational research on research. In some cases, funders are already carrying out experiments with funding systems, with insights and learnings ready to be shared and implemented.  One of the challenges for the consortium will be to find ways to legally and responsibly share data in circumstances involving different data standards and schemes.

What are the next steps?

Since the launch of the Research on Research Institute, we have continued the dialogue with strategic partners within the consortium and are now working to implement a programme of transformative research on research across three areas of strategic interest: Decision Making, Research Careers, and Research Cultures.

In the early months of 2020, working groups organised by staff drawn from across the consortium will co-design a set of projects which make use of the vast data assets held by the Institute partners and, crucially, have maximal potential to inform the ways that these organisations support open, diverse and inclusive research.

We encourage anyone with an interest in research on research to get involved in the conversation at, and to keep an eye out for updates on the initial raft of RoRI projects across our social media channels @RoRInstitute.