The Higher Education Funding Council for England has launched a major study of the international standing of research conducted in English universities.
Researchers at Leeds University and the Institute of Scientific Information in Philadelphia have been commissioned to gather bibliometric data as part of the numerical analysis for the project. And consultant Evaluation Associates has been asked to look at "esteem indicators".
HEFCE says the study will cover all 69 subjects areas in the research assessment exercise. The United States, France, Germany and Australia are countries against which HEFCE is keen to compare UK performance. But Alice Frost, head of research policy at HEFCE, admitted it would be "extremely difficult" for the same measures used for science and engineering to be applied to the arts and humanities.
HEFCE's project stems from a review of its method of funding research. A consultation paper last July invited comments on the proposal that "judgements on national needs and international standing" should be given greater weighting.
An initial report is planned for the end of the year and there will be consultation in the summer. "We will decide at the end of the year whether to use it for funding decisions or whether further work is needed," Ms Frost said.
Meanwhile, a favourable international comparison of UK science and engineering research has emerged in a study by the Office of Science and Technology.
The study covered 20 fields in science, engineering and medicine. It says that with only 1 per cent of the world's population, the UK carries out 5.5 per cent of research, holds an 8 per cent share of world scientific publications and 9 per cent of citations. "By this criterion the UK is the most cost-effective producer of research among the G7 countries," the report says.
But an informed source familiar with the report's findings said: "The measures used reflect the performance of the UK up to the beginning of the 1990s. The paper does not tell us whether the level of investment is adequate. After years of a squeeze we may be about enter a long period of decline. If this paper were to be used by the Government to say everything is all right with the science base it would be methodologically wrong."