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Predicting the future of research

  • 10 July 2019

At a recent HEPI roundtable on the future for global research the focus of discussion was the major recent study by Elsevier, produced in partnership with Ipsos Mori, which set out three future research scenarios – Brave open world, Tech titans, and Eastern ascendance – and explored how they could play over the medium to long-term. The HEPI roundtable brought together a group of senior leaders and also early career researchers to test the hypotheses laid out in the report and determine the impact this new world of research, and the key drivers of funding, could have on their institutions.

1) Brave open world

Globally, state funders and philanthropic organizations have joined forces and pushed through the creation of platforms where the research they fund must be published open access (OA). But the form of that OA varies by region; Europe is mostly gold, while North America and Asia Pacific is generally green. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and technology mean these platforms are flourishing – they are interoperable, and content is easy to access and showcase. As a result, there are fewer subscription-based journals.

A number of broad science, gold OA megajournals with low article publishing charges exist to publish content not captured by open platforms. Major society journals remain active, many operating a gold OA model, but struggle for manuscript submissions, so revenue is low. Preprints thrive in this world and are linked to the final article versions, which are still recognized as the authoritative version. Researchers benefit from access to data in a variety of ways, for example, via bite-sized publications and dynamic notebook-style articles.

The advances in AI and technology have also provided new methods of generating and communicating results. While research quality is still an important measure of performance, journal publication plays a diminishing role in determining a researcher’s career progress. Increasingly, research is assessed against agreed societal impact standards.

2) Tech Titans

Industry and philanthropic foundations are the principal research funders, with far-reaching consequences for the research community. Some are feeling this impact more than others, for example, academic institutions with a focus on life sciences struggle. There have been significant advances in machine learning with sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) products driving innovation. This has led to large technology and data analytics companies becoming the curators and distributors of knowledge.

Research articles and journals play a much reduced role, with preprint servers and analytical layers over online content replacing some of their traditional functions. The article has become atomized with each part of a research publication created and hosted separately, but all elements are linked. Large technology companies have created a market shift toward AI-driven evaluation of these research outputs; however, current systems have proved susceptible to manipulation and there is pressure to increase their security.

Not all aspects of research are open; for example, where industry is funding research, key research data is not always made available so companies can retain a competitive and financial advantage.

For researchers, the developments in technology and consolidation of analytical services have revolutionized the way research is performed, enabling many to work independently of institutes and even funders – “science-as-a-service” is emerging as barriers to entry are reduced or removed.

3) Eastern Ascendance

China’s desire to transform into a knowledge-based economy has led to heavy public investment in research and development (R&D) and the systems and processes to capitalize on this in industrial and economic terms. As a result, China’s level of R&D funding is proportionally much higher than the West’s and continues to grow, changing the shape of scientific research. The sheer volume of investment by China, and other research nations in the region, has made the East a magnet for international researchers.

A lack of global alignment on grand challenges has resulted in inefficiencies in the international research system. Open science practices have been adopted in some countries and regions, but not all. Journal publishing is a mixed model of open access (OA) – gold and green – and subscription publishing. Individual research outputs can be accessed separately, but are always linked to the final article; for example, research findings, data and code.

Governments, industry and other research funders compete for scientific advantage through the controlled distribution and trading of data. When data is believed to hold no further commercial value, it is released so it can be linked back to its related research outputs.

Elsevier are gathering views on what researchers, policy makers and others in different parts of the world think the future will be like:

Thoughts from our roundtable
At the HEPI roundtable responses ranged from scepticism but also support for how some of the scenarios could play out.

Against the backdrop of the current Hong Kong protester crackdown, many voiced disbelief that China could establish itself as a destination of choice for top global researchers uness there was a moveaway from authoritarianism towards democracy. One person pointed out that the most successful universities have always been those with institutional autonomy. Others pointed to India to suggest that it could in fact be other countries or regions that over time become more dominant in research leadership and funding.

On Open Access, there were mixed feelings about whether the world was moving towards greater international collaboration, with some pointing to hopeful examples like the human genome project, while others decried the lack of genuinely open collaboration.

Some noted that change required people to enact it and that there were a range of interests at play. One participant noted that, as a researcher he was boldly in favour of open access, as a university manager he had some enthusiasm but real nervousness about the cost, and through his role in a learned society he could see that open access could bankrupt the institution.

Few disputed that artificial intelligence was transforming research, but would that enhance or diminish the role of blue skies thinking and life science research? And as machines increasingly automate some areas of research, would the focus move to more creative areas of research that (so far) are resistant to automation?

We would love to hear what you think of the Research Futures predictions – please let us know using this poll:

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