Industry urged to back UK research

The business world's "counter-intuitive" failure to capitalise on the UK's ever-increasing research excellence needs to be addressed by the government, the author of a report into UK research has said.

October 20, 2011

The data company Thomson Reuters' Global Research Report: United Kingdom, published this week, finds that the overall impact of UK research, measured by normalised citation scores, now surpasses that of the US.

Using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Thomson Reuters' Web of Knowledge, the report says the UK is home to 6 per cent of global researchers, who contribute to 8 per cent of papers.

Those papers attract 11 per cent of total citations and account for 14 per cent of highly cited papers.

That proportion rises to 17 and 20 per cent for papers with more than 500 and 1,000 citations, respectively, which are often associated with Nobel prizes.

Other countries to produce a disproportionate share of highly cited papers include the US, Germany and France, while the impact of research from Japan and China is disproportionately low compared with research spending.

Of those countries, the US and the UK have the highest citation impact in all broad discipline areas, while the UK's marked superiority over the US in organismal biology gives it the edge overall.

The UK's performance also continues to improve, while that of the US has "at best plateaued", Thomson Reuters' analysis suggests.

The report notes that only 4 per cent of OECD countries' total expenditure on research and development is spent in the UK - lower than for any of the comparator countries. In 2008 (the most recent figures available), expenditure by UK business was also low: 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product compared with 1.86 in Germany, 2.02 in the US and 2.7 in Japan.

"There appear to be rich pickings in novel IP (intellectual property) and, given that UK science appears to show the best possible return on investment, it is strange that business is reluctant to come to the table," the report says. Its author, Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters, noted that the proportion of UK R&D spending contributed by industry was declining, despite years of effort to improve universities' knowledge transfer.

"It would make enormous sense if there was more focus on why industry isn't at the table," Dr Adams said. "There has been a big transformation (in universities) in the past decade. But if you don't have industry going out and trying to pick up research, it is difficult for the universities to do anything. You can't just have knowledge looking for an opportunity: you also need problems looking for solutions."

He said industry had failed to invest in its UK facilities and had focused on moving manufacturing abroad for lower labour costs.

Dr Adams suggested that the government could incentivise companies, perhaps through tax breaks, to employ people with doctorates - the number of PhDs awarded annually has risen by about 50 per cent since 1998.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also released its own report on UK research performance this week, which paints a similar picture.

Credit: Thomson Reuters

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