British academics have proportionally stronger links with France and Germany than the United States, according to analysis that makes plain the increasingly international nature of research.
UK Universities, International Research Collaboration and Performance, released on 1 March at the Universities UK International Higher Education Forum 2016, also paints a picture of a world where breakthroughs are so international that the idea of holding on to intellectual property within national borders is hopelessly outdated.
Instead, the economic and social spoils of new research will go to countries and organisations best able to swiftly exploit discoveries, it argues.
From 2004 to 2013, UK academics authored nearly 125,000 articles and reviews with collaborators from the US, just over 63,000 from Germany and close to 47,000 from France, according to the analysis of data on Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science.
This means that per capita and compared with the size of their economies, Germany and France have much stronger links with UK academia than the US. Statistics also show that since the turn of the century links with Germany and France have grown far more rapidly than those with the US.
According to co-author Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the consultancy Digital Science, a switch to English was one of the reasons why.
Since the 1980s – when German and French researchers mostly published in their native languages – there had been “a shift across the globe into English”, he said.
Special relationships: UK’s research ties
The European Union had also ploughed money into pan-European projects, he added, and continentally mobile researchers had created links between institutions in different countries.
More generally, being part of the EU had also made UK academics conscious that they are not simply part of the anglophone world, he argued. The research was “timely”, given the UK’s upcoming referendum on EU membership on 23 June, Professor Adams said, but had not been commissioned for that purpose.
The report also looks at the proportion of research within the UK with an international collaborator. In 1981, about 90 per cent of research was purely domestic, but since then this had fallen to less than 50 per cent.
The University of Cambridge had the greatest proportion of international research – at about 60 per cent – and other institutions in the so-called golden triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford were also more international than average. But younger universities and those in the north of England were less so, the analysis concluded.
The “leading edge” of research was now international, Professor Adams said. “The idea that you can own knowledge assets and hold on to them and decide in your own time how to exploit them is definitely dead,” he argued. “It’s no longer about whether you own that kind of asset, it’s how quickly you can do something with it.”
There was therefore a danger in focusing on the social or economic impact of research – newly stressed in the UK’s 2014 research excellence framework – if it came at the expense of having people able to understand and use new knowledge, he said.