The common mantra that the UK is a "world leader" in stem-cell research has been challenged by a confidential report that lists only one UK research centre - London - in the global top 20.
The UK was touted as a "leader in the field" of stem-cell research by those advocating the use of human-animal hybrid embryos during debates over regulation last year. The arguments helped to ensure that the sector has a regulatory framework considered to be one of the most scientifically liberal in the world.
But a report by technology consultants Cels, leaked to Times Higher Education, suggests that the UK could be suffering from an inflated perception of its own research prowess.
The report, commissioned by the NorthEast England Stem-Cell Institute (Nesci) - a collaboration centred around Newcastle, analyses the volume of academic papers and patents produced by more than 100 institutes worldwide.
It concludes that US institutions lead the world. Only one UK research centre - a loose grouping of about ten institutions including King's College London and University College London - has a place in the "global top 20 stem-cell institutes". Nesci "has not reached the global top 50", it says.
"US institutes have become the dominant force in stem-cell research," the report says. "This they have achieved by creating significant critical mass by forming consortia of existing university and hospital departments without the need for time-consuming recruitment ... Only London has achieved the scale of a US institution."
A more detailed examination that compares the "top 15 global institutes", the "top five UK institutes" and Nesci on the criteria of academic excellence, clinical translation and commercialisation puts London in ninth place, with Nesci in 20th.
Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), which opposes embryonic stem-cell research, said the report showed the "hype" generated by the UK stem-cell community.
"A lot of this (the hybrid embryos debate) was based on the position that we have to do it because the UK might lose its position as the leading centre for stem-cell research ... (But) in no way can you legitimately claim these centres are world leaders," she said.
She added that although the US had shown little interest in pursuing hybrid embryo research, "they are leading the world."
The Medical Research Council said Nesci's commissioned analysis was "not robust enough" to say much about the UK's international position.
Rob Buckle, the MRC lead on stem cells and regenerative medicine, said: "The UK is producing some of the most promising science in the area of stem-cell research. There is undoubtedly great quality science in the US, but it is true to say that the UK consistently punches above its weight."
Nesci said the analysis was intended to be tough and had been meant for internal use only. It said that while Nesci was not in the leading group, it did rank third in the UK and 12th worldwide in terms of quality of published papers. It was "hardly surprising" that London appeared extremely powerful given the number of universities consolidated, it added.
The report comes as a new row erupts over the UK research councils' commitment to funding stem-cell work. Researchers at King's College and Newcastle University claimed last week to have been blocked from receiving funding for human-animal hybrid embryo research because of moral objections from peer reviewers.
MPs on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee have vowed to look into the matter.
LEADERS IN THE FIELD
Overall top five stem-cell institutes globally
5. Johns Hopkins
Overall top six institutes in the UK
Source: Benchmarking: Academic, Clinical and Commercialisation Activities in Nesci, August 2008.