Medical research shifts from universities to hospitals

Global analysis shows hospital studies increasingly important but industry publications dip

September 3, 2015
Pipette dripping liquid into test tube

Policies aimed at making scientific research more applicable to real-world problems have led to a global shift towards hospital-based medical research and away from university labs, a data analysis has suggested.

Since 2005, the proportion of publications in more practically focused medical journals has steadily increased as science has become more utilitarian.

That is according to Robert Tijssen, chair of science and innovation studies at Leiden University, who has looked at research conducted by the world’s 750 top-ranked universities since 2000.

“We are seeing some real changes in that science is now driven by these issues of utility,” he told Times Higher Education.

"This is primarily in the medical sector,” he said. “Many [scientists] are focusing their research towards particular problems” rather than more abstract concerns. “Overall this is a clue that world science is moving towards hospital research.”

“What we are probably seeing is the outcome of policies…trying to make science more applicable to public needs and away from curiosity [driven research],” he said.

Last year, the UK’s assessment of research quality – the research excellence framework – included a controversial “impact” assessment that aimed to measure the benefits of scholarship beyond academia.

Australia is considering whether to follow the UK’s lead. In 2012, 12 Australian universities took part in a trial to assess the impact of research in the country.

Yet arguably the biggest change in world research since the turn of the century has been the rise of China as a research powerhouse, which may have helped to shift global science towards more utilitarian goals.

Over the past decade, China has leapfrogged Japan, the UK, Germany and France to become the second biggest source of scientific research publications behind the US. Its key research programmes – known as 973 and 863 – are explicitly intended to benefit China’s economy and society.

In 2000, about 24 per cent of the publications Professor Tijssen looked at were published in hospital-based journals – a proxy for practically focused medical research. By 2013, this had risen to 28 per cent.

Yet over the same period, the fraction of industry-oriented research fell, with a particularly sharp drop from 2006 to 2007.

Professor Tijssen said that university-industry collaboration was still “very active” but fewer results were being published because of commercial confidentiality concerns.

The simultaneous rise of hospital-based research and the fall in industry research meant that the overall proportion of “applied” science was roughly stable over the period studied at about 55 per cent.  

On the age-old question of the correct balance between pure and applied research, Professor Tijssen said he did not think that the apparent move away from pure research in medicine was a problem.

“Basic science, curiosity-driven science, isn’t enough. You need to confront researchers with real problems,” he said. “Breakthroughs are serendipitous. Breakthroughs need problems.”

He also cautioned that some of the surge in hospital-based publications could be attributable in part to the growth of medical and life sciences journals.

Professor Tijssen said he hoped to publish the full findings of the research – conducted with Jos Winnink, a PhD student and researcher at Leiden – next year.

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