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The Elsevier report – cause for celebration?

November 7, 2011

Last month, science minister David Willetts announced that the UK is currently a world-leader in science and research, according to a new report commissioned by BIS. Were these announcements a true reflection of the findings or was Willetts speaking atop a carpet bulging with hidden secrets?

The report, compiled by Elsevier, revealed that UK research attracts more citations per pound spent in overall R&D than any other large country – usually an indicator of the quality of research. The UK has more articles per researcher, more citations per researcher, and more usage per article authored than researchers in the US, China, Japan and Germany. It also suggests that UK research is diverse, our researchers are highly mobile and they are also internationally competitive. Good news all round then.

Or is it? The release of the findings on the Central Office of Information site includes the following consideration within its notes to editors:

3. The evidence gathered under this report evaluates the effectiveness of the Science and Research Budget, currently £4.6 billion, in achieving high international standards of research performance.

So the Elsevier report has been conducted in order to find out whether the ring-fenced budget is going to be enough to keep the UK as a world leader in scientific research. A brief look through the report paints a slightly less rosy picture:

While the UK is a world leader in terms of article and citation output per researcher and per unit of spend, its leadership position may be threatened by its declining share of researchers globally, and by its declining share of global spending on research.

For while the number of UK researchers and the UK’s spending on research are both growing in absolute terms, the growth rates of both are being outstripped by the growth rate of the global averages.

Not so much a cause for celebration but surely not enough reason to panic? The report goes on:

While thus far the UK has been highly effective in developing domestic and attracting non-domestic researchers, it is potentially at risk of falling behind relative to other research-intensive nations, especially when the relatively low underlying growth in the population and labour force are considered. Inability to develop, attract and retain enough researchers may have negative consequences for national R&D capacity.

The future is not looking quite so bright as things stand, but there’s more:

In terms of spending on research, UK GERD* is increasing but also remains below that of several key comparator countries both proportionally and in absolute terms.

The UK’s world share of GERD fell from 3.7% in 2006 to 3.0% in 2010. By contrast, China’s share increased from 8.9% to 13.3% over the same period.

*GERD – Gross Expenditure on Research and Development

Willetts is right to express his pride in the positive findings from this report, and there are many things to be proud of. However, it is vital that these are placed in context.

The report insists that the UK is in real danger of losing its prominent position in worldwide R&D. Several of the emerging nations are lining up to join the head table at the expense of the UK and we need to be prepared to put up a fight for our seat.

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