‘Excellent but under pressure’: official verdict on UK research

The UK research base is the most productive in the world but its position could be threatened by relatively low investment, a government-commissioned report warns.

October 19, 2011

The report, International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2011, compares the UK’s research performance to that of a range of major or rising research powers, including the US, China, Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India.

Based on data analysis, literature reviews and researcher interviews, it confirms that the UK generates more articles and citations per researcher, as well as more downloads per article authored, than any of the comparator nations.

The report, compiled by publisher and data provider Elsevier, ranks the UK second – and closing – to the US in terms of overall normalised citation impact.

It attributes some of the UK’s strength to the willingness to collaborate and international mobility of its researchers, 46 per cent of whom co-authored papers with academics from abroad in 2010 and 63 per cent of whom have previously published articles while working at foreign institutions.

Researchers who have worked in more than one country are the most productive, while internationally co-authored papers tend to be more highly cited, the report notes.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills intends to commission similar reports every two years in order to “evaluate the effectiveness” of the UK’s £4.6 billion science budget “in achieving high international standards of research performance”.

David Willetts, minister for universities and science, will present the findings during his Gareth Roberts Memorial Lecture this evening.

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the event, organised by the Science Council, he flagged up the breadth of UK research strength, describing it as “amazing for a medium-sized economy” and “part of the secret of our success”.

The report also notes that UK researchers have a low and declining share of global patents and papers co-authored by academics and industry researchers, which it attributes to low levels of business spending on research and development.

“However, high usage by R&D-intensive corporations of articles authored by academic researchers suggests a productive knowledge flow between academic and corporate sectors,” it adds.

But it warns that the UK’s “leadership position” may be threatened by its declining share of global researchers and research spending, exacerbated by its “inability to sustain R&D spending at levels comparable to the global average” relative to gross domestic product.

Mr Willetts said there was an “arithmetical certainty” about the expansion in research output and quality by rising powers such as China and Brazil.

But he added that the stability of UK science funding was the envy of many countries and contrasted it with the “boom and bust” through which US researchers were currently going, with the end of funding from the stimulus bill.

He admitted that capital funding, which, unlike other science spending, has not been ring-fenced, was “under short-term pressure”.

“But in the first 18 months of the coalition government we have delivered six out of eight of the priority programmes identified by the research community,” he said.

He also admitted that the changes to undergraduate funding could have knock-on effects on the flow of early career researchers, but insisted the government was “focusing” on this.

He said he expected the government’s policy paper on innovation and research to be published before Christmas.


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