Europe ‘struggling to catch’ US on high-impact science

Americans produce nearly twice as many highly cited papers in key fields, with China also catching up on EU

June 8, 2017
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Follow the leader: the US continues to outperform Europe in terms of number of papers produced, a new study has found

Europe is struggling to catch up with the US on producing important science and is in danger of being overtaken by China and other Asian countries, a major study claims.

Researchers who found that the US is at least twice as effective in producing highly cited papers in key scientific fields argue that their conclusions raise serious questions about the effectiveness of European Union research policy and indicate that research funding on the continent is “improperly allocated”.

Published in the Science and Public Policy journal, “European paradox or delusion – are European science and economy outdated?” looked at the 495 most highly cited papers every third year from 1990 to 2011, across four fields: chemistry, physics, clinical medicine, and biochemistry and molecular biology. In total, 15,840 papers were analysed.

In each field, the paper concludes, the number of papers produced in the US was typically one-and-a-half to three times higher than the EU’s count. While the EU was making progress in each field, this appeared largely attributable to US collaboration, not European achievements alone. And, in “hot areas” of research such as graphene – in which European researchers made the initial breakthrough – Asian nations such as China and South Korea had already overtaken the UK and Germany in producing highly cited papers by 2013.

Co-authors Alonso Rodríguez-Navarro, emeritus professor at the Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, and Francis Narin, former president of research consultancy CHI Research (now The Patent Board), say their findings are “clear proof of the falsity” of the “European paradox” – the idea that Europe produces outstanding research despite weaker economic performance which is, they say, the basis of much of the continent’s research funding policy.

“EU science is not excellent, [it] lags far behind the US in most fields, and is in danger of, and in some cases already is, falling behind China and other Asian [countries] in science areas critical to highly scientific future industries,” Dr Narin told Times Higher Education. “With the current EU policies, Europe will never be able to catch up with the US and Asia in the industries of the future, and may never create the kind of wealth that arises from revolutionary industries.”

Professor Rodríguez-Navarro said that the best European research focused on areas in which technological progress is “slow or even non-existent”.

“Highly cited research is the basis of scientific progress,” he said. “Scientific progress in research areas of low technological progress does not have economic consequences, but in areas of rapid technological progress the lag means less innovation and lower economic competitiveness.

“Europe needs to invest more in research…[and] funds must be invested…to reach the research excellence that has been lost.”

The paper suggests that the decentralised nature of research funding in the US is less constraining for young scientists and increases their chances of winning grants.

However, Sir Richard Roberts, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and chief scientific officer of Massachusetts-based bioscience supplier New England Biolabs, noted that the paper “relies on citation data and bibliographic measures of quality”, which he believes is a “very flawed way of judging good quality science”.

“In my own field, I see no difference between the quality of science produced in Europe and in the US,” he said.

In response, a European Commission spokesman said a recent study on the science, research and innovation performance of EU funding found the EU was “starting to catch up with the US” when looking at the number of highly cited papers as a proportion of all published papers. 

“The EU is currently undertaking a broader review of the Horizon 2020 [research funding] programme and its impact, the results of which will inform the set-up of the new European research and innovation funding programme post 2020,” he said.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council, said the “idea that Europe lags behind the US in terms of research with the highest impact” was one of the major rationales behind the ERC’s formation.

“Ten years [on], there is already evidence the ERC is making a difference at this level,” he said. “It is very pleasing to see the results of a [recent] independent report by Clarivate Analytics [acknowledging] the breadth, quality and frontier nature of ERC-funded research.

“It also establishes that the gap between the research performance of the US and the EU countries has narrowed…since the ERC was established.”

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