A new briefing from the Social Market Foundation, authored by Will Henshall – a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School – warns that without a change in course, the UK faces the prospect of having to pay ever more for breakthroughs or having to accept slower rates of progress and economic growth.

The productivity of scientists in the UK has been falling over time, having declined particularly sharply since the 1990s. As a result, the paper argues that “we are getting less back for our buck” despite the number of researchers rising over time (See note 2). Henshall suggests that the time it takes to secure funding, and processes that prevent novel and more transformative research from securing funding are important contributors to this falling productivity.

He calls on the government to set up a National Institute for Scientific Replicability – a body run independently from other scientific bodies, with its own budget. It should be given the power and resources to fund new lines of enquiry on important scientific questions where the traditional sources of funding are arguably affected by ‘groupthink and confirmation bias’.

Another issue that the Institute could tackle is the ‘crisis of replicability’ that has hit many scientific disciplines, researchers following up high-profile findings have found themselves unable to confirm the initial results. Growing pressure on researchers to publish has led to poor methods being used, thus reducing the replicability of their findings, said Henshall.

To tackle the crisis, the Institute should also be tasked with sponsoring independent replication projects and developing tools that can predict the replicability of scientific enquiries to guide replication efforts.

The paper also puts forward additional recommendations to address the falling productivity of scientific work, such as creating shared research infrastructure, and getting the UK Research and Innovation to announce a date by which all research institutions must be in compliance with all open research policy.

Further recommendations:

    1. Diversify UKRI funding mechanisms, exploring innovative approaches such as:
  • Funding people not projects, with fellowships to promising young researchers
  • Giving reviewers ‘golden tickets’ to fund radical ideas
  • Run trials of funding mechanisms, such as assigning funding by lottery
    1. Establish the ‘Atlas Institute’: an organisation which maps scientific progress and encourages scientific productivity and interdisciplinary research.

Will Henshall, researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, said: “Continued scientific and technological progress will be essential if we are to solve the pressing challenges facing the UK and the world. It’s been great to see new institutions being set up and new ideas being tested to accelerate this progress in the last few years, but more must be done. This paper makes recommendations for the next steps we can take.”