The vast majority of scientific research in the UK takes place in University-based research labs, which broadly share a similar structure. Institutes based on different organisational principles could unlock greater productivity, enhance scientific creativity, and facilitate collaboration. We are also interested in interrogating the incentives baked into the current landscape and investigating how these impact research outcomes.
Could we organise research better?
The vast majority of basic science in the UK takes place in university-based research labs, which share a broadly similar organisational structure. While this structure is suitable for certain kinds of research, many modern projects require infrastructure and operating environments that traditional academic labs are unable to provide. Research in fast-moving areas is increasingly shifting to diverse institutions outside of academia—many transformative technologies are now being developed by organisations such as OpenAI, Anthropic, and Gingko Bioworks, all with hugely divergent modes of operation.
To accelerate fundamental research, we need to understand how to deploy resources at scale to address basic questions. Many historic breakthroughs have originated in industrial or applied research labs: Bell Labs, DARPA, Skunk Works, and others. Understanding what made these labs special and applying these approaches to today’s research questions could help seed the next wave of innovation.
New technical paradigms
One approach may be to build institutions centred around highly technical core facilities that provide specialised services to the whole building, enabling complex research projects beyond the technical scope of any individual lab. Such institutions may also contract out their technical expertise to external researchers, providing what might be termed science as a service. In general, we expect that closer integration between research institutes, contract research organisations, and scientific consulting firms could increase the global accessibility of technical expertise, allowing smaller labs to do work that would otherwise require expensive equipment or training.
In many fields, much of a bench scientist's time is spent conducting repetitive, common types of experiments that do not require a degree in biology to perform, but rather require specific technical skills. A shift away from a paradigm where scientists conduct all of their own experiments towards greater use of lab technicians would leave scientists more time to analyse data, read papers, attend conferences, or collaborate with colleagues. It would also mitigate against unintentional bias in conducting experiments, and plausibly improve the quality of data. Technicians could be hired from apprenticeship schemes or other structured training opportunities to efficiently recruit and up-skill staff, creating job opportunities conducting highly meaningful work.
Centres for theory
There is also ample scope to build institutes focused on more theoretical science. Although current incentives tend to favour more data generation, generating theories and ideas is essential for innovation, even in more experimental disciplines. The environments needed for such theoretical work are likely to differ substantially from more technically-driven organisations.
Historical models for theoretical institutes exist in some fields—these include the Institute for Advanced Study, All Souls College, and the Santa Fe Institute. It would be very useful to find ways to adapt these models for experimental and lab-oriented disciplines. In biomedicine, for instance, theory-driven scientists may work in close collaboration with technically-driven scientists, or otherwise may leverage commissions from Contract Research Organisations.
Building new things
A crucial structural challenge facing many scientific institutions is the lack of available housing and lab space. In areas such as Cambridge, Oxford, and London, where demand for real estate is high, it can be difficult for researchers to find affordable space to live and work. As enabling geographical closeness is central to innovation, it is important to enable talent to flow into key hotspots of scientific development.
Geographical proximity enables unconventional ideas, and this effect appears to disappear within ten miles in some industries. Policy reforms that enable large-scale construction of lab space and housing in these areas could thus help create momentum for the R&D sector. Enabling transport between key research hubs via projects such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc could also help to foster a similar effect by making it easier for researchers to collaborate.
Building institutes based on different organisational principles could help us do better research. Exciting experiments exist in this space, including institutes with no-strings-attached funding, Focused Research Organisations, and open science-driven companies. The Better Science Project is interested in conducting metascience research that helps us understand what makes environments like Building 20 special, and in using this understanding to inform how we build the next generation of research institutions.