Wales is punching above its weight in research

Wales is a small, ambitious country within the United Kingdom with a strong and growing international research base, much of which is not fully recognised in Wales or internationally. Over the past five years several reports have suggested that Welsh research has not performed as well as other UK countries or countries of a similar size.

Underlying these reports is the inevitable comparison with historically stronger regions of the UK and a tendency to focus on research income – all of which tends to present a misleading and one-sided picture of Welsh research.

One reason for these perceptions is the lack of a comprehensive national or international benchmark of Wales’ research performance since devolution in 1999.

To secure an authoritative, comparative snapshot of Wales’ research base, Welsh universities in partnership with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Welsh government commissioned Elsevier – one of the world’s leading providers of scientific and medical information services – to produce an independent, evidence-based report of Wales’ research activity and relative research impact compared to international comparators over the past 15 years.

The report, titled International Comparative Performance of the Welsh Research Base 2013, was launched this month by the Welsh government.

One important feature of the Elsevier report was the ability to directly compare Wales’ performance with different countries.

Simply comparing countries by total volume of publications makes little sense when trying to benchmark research quality, as larger countries with more researchers, publications and greater funding typically perform better.

Some findings

By linking research output productivity to economic metrics and relating these to measures of relevant relativised research inputs, the Elsevier report provided compelling evidence for the benefits of public investment in university research and also the strong position that Welsh research holds both within the UK and internationally.

The report also found that the performance of Welsh research is among the top of the world's leading small research nations.

Despite a relatively small researcher base, and securing only 2% of the total amount of UK research and development spend in 2011, Wales has managed to make a big impact that accounts for a disproportionately high share of the world’s published academic articles, global citations and highly cited articles.

In particular, the report confirmed that the quality of Welsh research is ranked highly by national and international standards and suggested that Wales is one of the best places to do research.

In terms of research impact using Elsevier’s field weighted citation impact, Wales has since 2011 overtaken countries such as Norway, Finland, Ireland and New Zealand, rising from 28% in 1996 to 61% above the world average in 2012.

Despite publishing a relatively small number of publications, Wales’ share of the top 1% highest cited articles for 2007-11 was 0.7%, which is over twice as high as might be expected based on an global publication share of 0.3%.

Moreover at 84%, the percentage of cited publications for Wales was higher than that of the UK (82%) and higher than the world average (68%). Impressively, Wales’ use of its relatively small research funding was highly productive and efficient, outranking most comparator countries of similar size.

The report identifies research collaboration and mobility as key factors behind Wales’ success. The country’s collaboration is truly international and has the highest percentage of international collaboration of all UK constituent countries.

Aside from collaboration with Scotland and England, the main European and international partners for Welsh researchers include The Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan.


One concern identified in the report is the low number of researchers per head of population, low levels of funding and slow growth in the number of researchers compared to similar sized countries.

Indeed one of the reasons Wales performs so highly on research efficiency is due to both a decline in GERD – gross expenditure on research and development – in Wales, and the slow growth in numbers of researchers.

While initiatives such as the Welsh government's £80 million (US$133 million) Sêr Cymru programme in 2012 provided a much welcome and needed impetus for Welsh research, the findings of the report suggest the need for continued public investment in the university research base to ensure the critical mass of researchers required to build the capacity to win greater and sustained competitive funding.

Few in Wales would dispute that universities in Wales could and need to do better on winning more research grant income, and need to continue to improve the quality of research publications.

But the Elsevier report provides a timely reminder that Wales comprises part of a world-leading UK science base, which over the past 15 years has improved significantly, closing the gap on England and Scotland – and in the process outperforming many European and international countries of similar size.

* Professor Peter W Halligan is head of strategic futures for Higher Education Wales.

* Click here for the Elsevier report for the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013.