Winning the dragon race

By any objective measure, Welsh university research simply doesn't deserve its bad press, argues Peter Halligan

July 12, 2012

Universities often decry the commercialism of league tables. But while most of us recognise the limitations of rankings, the reality remains that universities operate in an increasingly competitive global market where reputation plays a major role in determining the choices made by students, researchers and employers.

As a whole, the UK's research base has an enviable global status. But a comparison of the devolved nations suggests that this perception is not necessarily consistent across the piece.

While Scotland and England retain international research reputations, the collective view of Welsh research has been less positive. Successive reports and headlines have concluded that Welsh research "casts an insufficient shadow on the world scene", underperforming in terms of both quality and income.

But while acknowledging the underperforming "tail" identified by the last research assessment exercise, it is important to highlight the internationally benchmarked bibliometric evidence suggesting that this perception of Welsh research output is misleadingly bleak.

A key metric that lies behind it is Wales' failure to secure its notional 5 per cent share of UK research council funding by population size. In absolute terms, Wales secures relatively little competitively awarded research funding in comparison with England and Scotland.

However, a key reason for this is structural and concerns a historical deficit of researchers working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. Since these disciplines typically attract the largest proportion of research council funding, this inevitably plays in favour of more STEM-heavy sectors in England and Scotland.

While the Golden Triangle, consisting of Cambridge, Oxford and London's top research-intensive universities, is an exceptional case, the amount of research council funding per head of population in Wales is roughly equal to the average of other English regions.

Given the levels of research funding, it is worth asking how Wales performs internationally, particularly against developed countries of similar size. An analysis of Elsevier's Scopus database over the past decade shows that the number of articles authored by Welsh researchers has grown at a rate that outpaces the world and UK average.

The impact of Welsh research, as measured by citations per paper, has also been growing - between 2006 and 2010 at a level that exceeded the UK average. Judged in terms of citations per paper, the bibliometric figures from Thomson Reuters show that Wales has, over the past decade, come from behind to take a place within the top 20 research countries in the world.

Indeed, Wales' current research impact exceeds the world, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and European Union average, despite the country producing proportionally fewer overall outputs and securing only 3.4 per cent of UK research council funding.

From 2008 onwards, Wales has been included in the top 20 countries "for all fields" listed by Thomson Reuters' Essential Science Indicators, and in 2011 it was ranked 15th - ahead of France and Australia.

Despite comparatively low levels of research income within the UK, Wales' standing in published international research has risen dramatically over the past decade, overtaking productive countries with a similar population and greater volume of papers, such as the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and Norway.

It is likely that this is due in part to strategic improvements in institutional research management, as well as to Welsh funding council initiatives that have forced research-intensive institutions to pay closer attention to research productivity and quality, interdisciplinary collaboration and competitive funding schemes.

Another factor has been greater collaboration, both within the UK and internationally. Wales is a small country intent on growing its research reputation, and its government's Science for Wales strategy provides a timely catalyst for collaborative work to develop a number of niche areas.

Despite the bad press, the data show that Wales can and does compete globally in terms of research outputs. Now it is time for it to grow its share of competitive research funding.

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