Welsh research: punching above its weight

Wales does quite well from its small research base, but it can do better, says Peter Halligan

May 29, 2014

Since devolution, several reports and media articles have claimed that the Welsh research base does not perform as well as it should. Evidence has included Wales’ failure to reach its government’s target of parity with other UK nations in terms of share of competitive research council income based on population size.

However, input measures such as funding do not provide a full picture of the quality or performance of a research base, leading some to question whether the Welsh government target is the most useful indicator, particularly as research council funding comprises less than a quarter of Wales’ total research income.

To secure an independent, international comparative overview of the Welsh research base, the Welsh government, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and Welsh universities commissioned Elsevier to produce the first comprehensive bibliometric-based analysis of Wales’ research productivity and impact since devolution. This report, published in February, compares research from universities, research institutes, industry and the NHS in Wales with that from other UK constituent home countries and several international countries of similar size.

The main findings showed that, collectively, the Welsh research base makes a big impact that accounts for a disproportionately higher share of the world’s published academic articles, global citations and highly cited articles, despite having a relatively small researcher base.

With just 4.9 per cent of the UK population and 0.14 per cent of the world’s researchers, Wales is the UK’s most efficient constituent country for converting gross domestic expenditure on research and development into publications, and one of the most efficient in the world for countries with a similar population.

Despite producing a relatively small number of publications, Wales’ share of the top 1 per cent highest cited articles for 2007-11 was 0.7 per cent, more than twice as high as might be expected based on a global publication share of 0.3 per cent.

The report suggests that international research collaboration and research mobility are major factors behind Wales’ success, with the percentage of Welsh articles resulting from international collaboration increasing from 45 per cent in 1997-2001 to 60 per cent in 2007-11.

While there is much in the Elsevier report that is positive, concerns are raised regarding Wales’ future competitiveness and sustainability. Although its research has performed better than that of many similar-sized countries, such as Norway, Finland and the Republic of Ireland, with greater research intensity, maintaining this low research intensity is not a healthy future strategy, given that the scale of a research base remains a key driver for growing research output, impact, grant capture and innovation. Recognising that a strong university research base is crucial for improving Wales’ economic well-being, the Welsh government has announced an investment of £50 million to bring science talent to Wales. No one should be under any illusion about the investment levels required to grow Wales’ science base so that it has the critical mass of researchers capable of winning greater and sustained competitive funding.

While the Elsevier report provides a compelling summary that challenges previous perceptions, the findings also provide an opportunity for Welsh universities and the Welsh government to work collectively to build a strong, recognisable sector brand that can be used alongside individual institutional and UK brands, to help promote Wales’ high-quality performance and to help its efficient research base compete more successfully in the global economy.

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