Home truths

By Jonathan Adams
Research Fortnight
01-05-2013

The UK government shouldn’t brag about the strength of British research when it is so dependent on the efforts of overseas scientists, says Jonathan Adams.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ biennial report, International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base, is worth waiting for. It contains the gloriously hubristic fanfare that “the UK spends 4 per cent of the world’s gross expenditure on R&D on 6 per cent of the world’s researchers, who author 8 per cent of the world’s research articles and reviews, attract 11 per cent of the world’s citations and so create 14 per cent of the world’s highly cited output”.

Well done, but that isn’t the whole story. A consequence of increasing international scientific collaboration is that most of those papers reported as being from the UK have authors from other countries. Indeed, papers with authors from outside the UK make up most of the UK’s more highly cited research.

Partnerships are usually agreed to be a good thing as we can tackle the biggest challenges more rapidly with shared resources. But there is a downside: the blandness that emerges when everybody agrees on the same priorities. So we need to nurture our mavericks.

BIS tracks the growth in collaborations with the United States, Europe and increasingly with countries such as China. It is assumed that the big international programmes are driving this trend, bringing groups together to work on health, genomics, climate change and the Higgs boson.

If we want to look more closely at this, then Switzerland is a good place to start. It may be a small country but it is widely applauded for the quality of its research. Its record is startlingly good if you consider the citation impact. Papers with a Swiss author are cited almost twice as often as the world average, whereas for the UK and US the figure is around 1.5 times the world average.

Switzerland’s total research output, recorded on Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, has increased fourfold in 30 years to around 25,000 papers a year, while its domestic output hasn’t even doubled. So the share of ‘Swiss’ output with no international author is down from 75 per cent of the national total in 1981 to barely 25 per cent in 2012. Much of the headline increase is due to Cern, the World Health Organization, corporate pharmaceutical headquarters and a variety of other research drivers with multinational links.

What has happened in Switzerland is increasingly true elsewhere. In 2010, for the first time, fewer than half of the papers produced in the UK had no overseas author. The trajectory has been from 85 per cent domestic research in the 1980s down to 48 per cent in 2012. In the US, two-thirds of output is still wholly domestic despite the country being the favourite partner for most others, but it, too, is on a clear downward slope.

Three questions come out of this. What about China? Is the effect uniform across universities? And how well is the UK really performing?

China is not on the same trajectory as the west, and nor are South Korea, Brazil or India. China has phenomenal growth but it is largely driven by domestic growth. It certainly collaborates more in absolute terms but not in relative terms, and its research has remained around 75 per cent home-grown. People mutter about the quality of this work, but 10 per cent of that domestic research is already hitting a respectable citation target.

Back in the UK, it is the big universities in the south-east that have the highest rate of international collaborations. Leading research groups at home collaborate with the leading research groups overseas. High impact meets high impact and spawns exceptional impact. But where does that leave those regional research groups that are less well connected to the international networks?

And finally, how on earth is BIS going to work out whether the UK’s performance is actually any good or not? If more than half our research lacks that special Made in Britain kitemark, can we really claim it as ‘ours’, or has the leading edge moved away from the national base and towards international enterprise? And what does this mean for the report on the international performance of the UK’s research base?

Collaboration is essential to research; we need more of it, not less. BIS has to enable the UK’s international collaboration to become more pervasive so that all universities can keep up, not just the Golden Triangle connecting Oxford, Cambridge and London. And it can convince the Treasury that this would benefit UK innovation by linking global knowledge to regional industry.

Jonathan Adams, a former director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters, is a freelance consultant.

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