Go back

Walport calls for less but better research

The UK government’s chief scientific adviser has said he would be happy for less research to be funded as long as it was more reliable than the work produced today.

Mark Walport said in a speech at the Royal Society on 5 May that scientists needed “to start making tough choices” if they were to improve their trustworthiness.

He said one option was to reduce the volume of research output while strengthening the scientific infrastructure, which would lead to fewer outputs but ones of higher quality than today’s.

Walport was speaking at the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication conference, where the programme focused on evidence to back the perception that a lot of research was not being replicated or reproduced. Walport said this had huge implications for science.

“We must focus all our efforts on ensuring the trustworthiness of the scientific endeavour,” he told delegates, including funders, senior academics, fellows of the Royal Society, publishers, campaigners and journalists.

One funder in the room agreed that less but more reliable research, was preferable. Mark Thorley is head of science information and data management coordinator at the Natural Environment Research Council. He said: “The more we move to a domain of more open and trustworthy science, the more it will probably cost.. We have to do more in verification or managing research data and being more open, which basically means we will fund less research, but better research—possibly.”

Walport replied that it costs more to do bad research than it does to do good research. “So if less research is funded that is more reliable, that is actually an advance on funding more research that is unreliable,” he said.

However, Thorley also suggested that funding less research would have a negative impact on the UK’s standing in international rankings of research output and on the cost effectiveness of its research base. Similarly, he said, individual UK universities would see their standings fall.

Walport will rely on such rankings when involved in building the case for continued science funding in the comprehensive spending review under the new government. But he did not respond to this point.

Instead, Walport explained that the burden of improving the trustworthiness of science lay ultimately with researchers. “Funders don’t make [the necessary] decisions,” he said, explaining that the researchers who make decisions through peer review can often inadvertently behave like enemies of the overall research system.

“A lot of you who are perfectly reasonable turn into fiends when you get into peer review committees,” he said. “So actually the cultural issue is to explain [the situation] to the scientific community. Making science trustworthy is up to us.”

Ben Goldacre, a senior clinical research fellow in transparency and reliability of research at the University of Oxford, asked the conference where the funding could come from to try some of Walport’s ideas. Walport, who used to direct the Wellcome Trust, said he could no longer speak on behalf of funders and no other representatives of funding bodies were able to respond publicly to Goldacre’s question.