British chemical engineers are falling behind their US counterparts in carrying out leading-edge work, according to a new method of analysing citations of papers. And it seems the research assessment exercise may be partly to blame.
The "citation footprint" technique, developed by Gilbert Shama, Klaus Hellgardt and Charles Oppenheim of Loughborough University, indicates that chemical engineering research in the UK continues to focus on narrowly defined traditional areas such as multiphase flow, standard separation processes, process control and distillation.
Dr Shama believes several factors are responsible for the UK sticking to tradition. "The RAE must be having an impact by strongly encouraging us to maintain a publication output strictly in our own field. It discourages us from broadening out, applying our knowledge and skill in fields such as biology, physics, medicine and biotechnology, as researchers in the US are doing." He also believes that a "certain amount of conservatism, vested interests," in chemical engineering departments has hampered the discipline's move into these other areas.
"Some people are, understandably, reluctant to let go of an area where they have made their names," he said, "but over the long term it could do a lot of damage to our discipline." By contrast, chemical engineering in the United States "appears to have reinvented itself".
Dr Shama, of Loughborough's chemical engineering department, said: "With globalisation of the industry, US chemical engineering academics have turned away from traditional, bedrock research topics and expanded into new areas such as tissue engineering, materials and biotechnology."
The citation footprint technique involved a comparison of leading researchers in seven of the top chemical engineering departments in the US and the UK. In the UK these are rated at 4 or above in the RAE.
Dr Shama stressed that the sample was small, but added: "We think the results do show strong differences in research bias between the UK and US. We plan to expand the study." The Loughborough team believes the "rigorous and sophisticated" technique, which uses a mixture of numerical and graphical analyses, can be applied to many other disciplines, allowing comparisons of the research paths taken by researchers, institutions and even countries, over time.