Britain still a global research heavyweight – Report

The United Kingdom remains a global research heavyweight and ranks first among some of the world’s most research-intensive nations, including Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, according to a new report.

Although Britain represents just 0.9% of the global population, the island nation accounts for 3.2% of global R&D expenditure, 4.1% of researchers, 6.4% of research articles, 9.5% of research article downloads and 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles, the 120-page report says.

Titled International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base, the report says that in terms of research quality, as measured by field-weighted citation impact, the UK has overtaken the US and now ranks first among the countries with which it is compared.

British research also clearly drives global innovation: its research is the second most frequently cited in global patents after Germany.

“The UK is the most productive research nation in terms of articles and citations per unit R&D expenditure, ranking first amongst comparator countries on these two indicators,” the report states.

Launched by the British Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on 6 December, the report was produced by Elsevier’s SciVal analytics team, based on Scopus data, OECD R&D expenditure and human capital information, and patent data from the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Article volume ‘well-rounded’

By volume of articles published, Britain is “a well-rounded research nation”, the report says. Apart from comparing Britain with the seven other research-intensive countries, the analysis also includes the three fast-growing nations – Brazil, India and Russia – and other international benchmarks.

The Elsevier team tracked investment in and the performance of the national research system in an international setting, combining a variety of indicators “to present a multifaceted view of the UK’s comparative performance in research as well as the trends that may affect its future position.”

The report says that compared to 10 years ago, and relative to the world average, the UK has increased its emphasis on social science and business but has produced proportionally fewer articles in biological, environmental and physical sciences, mathematics and engineering. Several of the comparator countries, including China, Japan and Russia, focus more strongly on those areas than the UK.

It also occupies a central position in global networks of collaboration and, among the comparator countries, has the second highest rate of international co-authorship, after France, with the rate continuing to rise. International co-authorship is associated with high publication impact.

“Researchers are the engine that drives the progress of research, and a country’s research base is critically dependent on the individual contributions of the researchers affiliated with its research institutions,” the report states.

“Although the UK researcher count is broadly stable and increasing at just 0.9% per year, this figure masks greater underlying increases in researcher numbers in the higher education sector, and the high degree of international mobility among active UK researchers which means the UK researcher population is constantly refreshing.”

But British researchers were also more sedentary than those in Canada although less so than those in China, where 71% were described as being sedentary between 1996 and 2012. That figure compares with 60% of Japanese, 52% of Italians, 47% of Americans, 36.7% of French and 36.3% of Germans. British researchers were ranked at 28.3% behind the Canadians at 27%.

Citation impact

Among the comparator countries, the report notes that Britain has overtaken the US to rank at the top by field-weighted citation impact – an indicator of research quality. With 2.4% of global patent applications, its share of citations from patents, both applications and granted, to journal articles is 10.9%.

“The UK is a highly productive research nation in terms of articles and citation outputs per researcher or per unit of R&D expenditure, resulting from a trend towards increasing outputs from broadly stable or decreasing inputs.

“It is likely that recent increases in UK research productivity have, at least to some extent, been driven by the increase in UK international research collaboration, which is also associated with greater citation impact,” the Elsevier team says.

Challenges ahead

Although Britain spent £27.4 billion (US$45 billion) on R&D in 2011, this represented a decrease of 0.8% per year between 2007 and 2011.

In terms of where the money was spent, the report says 64% was in the business enterprise sector, 26% in higher education, 9% in government organisations and 1% in other sectors.

“Amongst its comparator countries, the UK has the third-lowest R&D intensity and this indicator shows that investment in the research base is declining," the report says.

It also warns that while the US has the world’s largest research base, recent trends indicate its relative standing, and that of other traditional powerhouses such as the UK, may be starting to be eroded by pressure from the emerging nations of the East – most notably China.

It says that in terms of sheer volume of research inputs and outputs, “if not (yet) in terms of overall research quality, China’s slowly increasing rate of international collaboration and a net total inflow of researchers, make it seem likely that quality will follow".

In terms of PhD numbers, more than 20,000 doctoral students graduated in the UK in 2011, 6.3% of the aggregate across OECD countries and increasing at 3.4% per year in the period 2007-11. But among the comparator countries, the US, China and Germany each produced more PhD graduates than the UK in 2011.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said the report clearly demonstrated the continued strength of the UK science research base: “I've often said that I want the UK to be the best place in the world to do science and this research shows we are well on our way to achieving this goal.

“An excellent research base contributes directly to economic growth and is keeping us at the forefront of the global science race," Willetts said.