How good is the UK at research?

Posted on October 28, 2011 by


A new report published by BIS comparing the UK against other research-intensive nations highlights the international strength of the UK research community but also warns that it is under threat from underfunding and a decreasing share of the international scientific workforce. The report includes some pretty interesting statistics about research in the UK, comparing what we spend on R&D to what we get out of it. Weaknesses identified in the report, such as intellectual property and the ability to attract foreign scientists, reinforce the importance of these issues, which have already been the focus of AMRC’s policy work recently.

What’s in the report?

The report, written by science publishers Elsvier, compares the competiveness of the UK’s research base compared with seven other research-intensive countries (Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US) and also Brazil, Russia and India. To do this the authors looked at financial investment and expenditure, human resources, and research outputs, such as publishing rate, citations and usage of those articles. It is more of a compilation of data than any type of strategy document and it doesn’t make any recommendations.

So what did they find?

UK research is efficient and of a high quality. Despite being the third lowest spender on R&D the UK is second in terms of research quality: here are the headline figures…

  • We spend $32.2bn on R&D, which is 1.8% of our GDP – for comparison the US spends over 3% and is rapidly increasing this.
  • We contribute just 3% to the global R&D spend (only just above Italy and Canada)
  • Despite this we receive 11% of global citations and publish 14% of the most highly-cited papers (those ranked in the top 1% in numbers of citations). Citations are a measure of how many other scientists are referring to your work and are therefore a good indicator of its scientific value.
  • UK researchers generate more articles per researcher, more citations per researcher, and more usage per article authored than any other nation.

So we’re punching well above our weight. But whilst many of our competitor nations are increasing their spend on R&D the UK is reducing its investment, and the report warns that this could have serious consequences….

Other countries are outpacing the UK in terms of growth in number of researchers and spending on research. The UK is well positioned, but its ability to sustain its leadership position is far from inevitable.

The strengths of UK science lie in its long-established societies, universities and institutes. Focusing on a case study of cognitive neuroscience – a UK success story – the report highlights collaboration between research fields and multiple centres of excellence as a key ingredient in scientific success.

The UK has a healthy and broad range of research areas from psychology to aerospace engineering according to the report, and the medical sciences are a particular strength.

However the report warns that our productivity rate is slowing: our publishing rate has grown by less than the international average since 2006. Conversely, our share of citations is increasing suggesting that we are publishing less but of a higher quality.

The UK also accounts for only 2.2% of global patents. This may be due to comparatively low R&D spending by UK industry and the high levels of funding from higher education sources and charities, which have a low focus on commercialisation. Read AMRC’s guide to intellectual property and commercialisation here.

UK research is more dependent on charity funding than any other country. Funding from charities – classed as “other” in the report (which also includes funding from abroad) – accounts for 23% of UK R&D expenditure. As a percentage of overall R&D spending this is higher than in any other country studied. The Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation receive special mentions as major contributors to the category. In 2009-10 AMRC member charities spent £1.1bn on research and 15% of UK universities’ income is from UK charities.

UK scientists are internationally mobile, with 63% having spent more than two years abroad. These researchers are 66% percent more productive (in terms of papers published) than colleagues who have not worked abroad. However, our share of the global science workforce is decreasing and top-level scientists interviewed for the report complained of a shortage of quality post-graduate students.

Inability to develop, attract and retain enough researchers may have negative consequences for national R&D capacity

What next?

Government funding for science was spared the worst of the cuts and has been frozen in cash terms until 2015, although Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) aren’t so convinced. And in 2011’s Plan for Growth the government emphasised the importance of increasing the country’s focus on R&D and in particular the life sciences as a driver of economic growth (read Becky’s interpretation here).

Recent announcements of investment in collaborations between universities, the NHS and industry are a good sign that the government is aware of the value of collaboration shown in the report. And in a recent speech David Willets reaffirmed the value of the UK research community…

The research base is among our greatest national assets and vital for our future.

We’re expecting an update on their plan this autumn along with more initiatives to promote the life sciences sector.

AMRC is working to encourage the government to create the best environment for research in the UK, which will be a big step in ensuring we remain competitive and international investors continue to choose to locate research here. This includes streamlining regulation to make it easier to do research and collaborate, supporting education of the current and future workforce and working to embed research throughout the NHS and public health system – a huge resource for medical research.

Posted in: Policy