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UK research punches above its weight

29 Nov 2017

Maria de Kleijn, Senior Vice President of Analytical Services at Elsevier, summarises findings from their recent report on how the UK research compares to the rest of the world.

“The UK has a long history of punching above its weight as a research nation – a position it doesn’t take for granted”

This line summarises our report ‘International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016’,  commissioned by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and prepared by Elsevier.

So what does that mean, punching above its weight? The UK’s share of worldwide R&D spend is about 2.7%, and its share of researchers 4.1%, but with that spend it produces 6.3% of worldwide articles, and 15% of the world’s most highly cited articles (top 1%). Also, worldwide almost 10% of downloaded articles come from the UK.

The UK’s research is powerful across all subject areas; the UK is a well-rounded research nation with citation impact well above the world average in all subject fields. In other words, the UK is able to combine efficiency of spend (see above) with breadth of impact.

The UK is currently maintaining its position in an increasingly competitive global environment

So how is the UK doing compared to others? Globally, the rise of China is impressive. While in the ‘00s China focused on increasing output (number of articles), in recent years it has increased quality significantly. In 2014 China has overtaken the UK in share of worldwide citations. Yet, given the high and increasing research funding in China and its growth in articles and citations, the fact that the UK has remained stable in its citations share is an achievement.

At the level of institutions the UK also has a leading position in the world. Last August Times Higher Education published its annual World University Rankings. The global number one and two for 2018: Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Of the top 200 in this index, the UK holds more than 30 places. The UK is also the world’s 4th largest educator of PhDs.

So is all well? Can the UK sit back, and expect its position to last forever? Our evidence suggests otherwise.

Other nations are catching us up in both quality and quantity

First of all, we see other nations increasingly invest in quality of research. Some examples. China is strongly increasing its research funding; Germany through its “Excellence Initiative” is increasingly tying funding to proven research strength and smaller nations increasingly aim to target their research investments to their policy agenda. In other words, other nations are either increasing their breadth of quality, or their efficiency, or both.

International outlook and impact are strongly linked

Secondly, it is important to note that the UK currently holds a leading position in attracting foreign researchers, and in international co-authorship of articles. Worldwide we see a correlation between the international outlook of a country, and the citation impact. With currently more than half of the UK’s research output being co-authored internationally, the UK is leading the way. Therefore, being attractive as a research nation for foreign researchers, as collaboration partners or as a location to do research, will be key to maintain.

The EU is a significant funder of UK research

Lastly, the subject of funding. While around 76% of the UK’s research is funded by the UK itself – the Wellcome Trust playing a major role – some 15% comes from the EU. In fact, the UK is one of the largest benefactors of the Horizon2020 programme and its predecessor FP7, and a net benefactor as well. Given the sheer size of economy, outspending the US or China to gain ground will not be an option for the UK; nevertheless sufficient funding is key to be able to attract researchers, perform research and have impact.

So much of the world’s ground-breaking research originates from the UK; in many cases things we take for granted or as common knowledge today. From atomic nuclei, to penicillin, to Keynesian economics, to DNA’s double helix, to computers, to climate change. The UK’s research truly makes the world a better place; we at Elsevier are committed to help the nation sustain this magic.

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