Research 4.0: Research in the age of automation


There is a growing consensus that we are at the start of a fourth industrial revolution, driven by developments in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, 5G, new forms of energy storage and quantum computing.

This report seeks to understand what impact AI is having on the UK’s research sector and what implications it has for its future, with a particular focus on academic research.

Building on our interim report, we find that AI is increasingly deployed in academic research in the UK in a broad range of disciplines. The combination of an explosion of new digital data sources with powerful new analytical tools represents a ‘double dividend’ for researchers. This is allowing researchers to investigate questions that would have been unanswerable just a decade ago.

Whilst there has been considerable take-up of AI in academic research, the report highlights that steps could be taken to ensure even wider adoption of these new techniques and technologies, including wider training in the necessary skills for effective utilisation of AI, faster routes to culture change and greater multi-disciplinary collaboration.

This report recognises that the Covid-19 pandemic means universities are currently facing significant pressures, with considerable demands on their resources whilst simultaneously facing threats to income. But as we emerge from the current crisis, we urge policy makers and universities to consider the report’s recommendations and take steps to fortify the UK’s position as a place of world-leading research. Indeed, the current crisis has only reminded us of the critical importance of a highly functioning and flourishing research sector.

The report recommends:

  • The current post-16 curriculum should be reviewed to ensure all pupils receive a grounding in basic digital, quantitative and ethical skills necessary to ensure the effective and appropriate utilisation of AI.
  • A UK-wide audit of research computing and data infrastructure provision is conducted to consider how access might be levelled up.
  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should consider incentivising institutions to utilise AI wherever it can offer benefits to the economy and society in their future spending on research and development.
  • Universities should take steps to ensure that it is easier for researchers to move between academia and industry, for example, by putting less emphasis on publications, and recognise other outputs and measures of achievement when hiring for academic posts.