England's research is top class

September 25, 1998

English research is the best in the world or second only to the United States in at least 23 of the 69 subject areas defined by the research assessment exercise.

That is the conclusion of a study commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which uses the RAE to decide which universities get the most research cash.

The report's co-author, Jonathan Adams of the centre for policy studies in education at the University of Leeds, said: "This general performance must be considered an excellent mark of England's research activity."

Because England's research is university-based, its performance is more even than in countries such as Germany, which have institute-based research that focuses on specific areas. "The relative return - the bang per buck - is much higher in the university-based system," Dr Adams said.

The study also grouped similar subjects into 13 "super units of assessment" and found that England came first or second in ten of them. England is very strong in the pre-clinical and biological sciences. In the pre-clinical sciences, it is just behind the US and far ahead of Germany; in the biological sciences it is far ahead of all other countries bar the US.

Other strengths include physical sciences and mathematics, where the country ranks second or third with Germany. But England's performance in engineering is poor: it trails well behind its European competitors.

The findings have raised questions over whether cash should be spent to bolster weaknesses or strengths. HEFCE plans to consult universities on how the study's results can influence future allocations.

The study reached its conclusion after looking at the number of citations per paper in each of the 69 units of assessment defined by the RAE. Data from 22 of these units - mainly in the arts, humanities and social sciences - were inadequate for full analysis.

England came first or second in half of the remaining 47 units of assessment when compared with the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Australia.

It is the first time that England's international standing in scientific research has been analysed using RAE-defined categories. The report bolsters earlier international comparisons by the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Robert May.

Sir Robert's name adds weight to the report's findings, which were initially questioned by researchers at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex when a first draft was completed last year. The full report is now due to be published next month.

Benchmarking of the International Standing of Research in England - A Consultancy Study on Bibliometric Analysis is published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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