Sun and cloudsThe latest edition of the annual World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report shows a mixed picture for UK research and innovation, despite an improvement in the overall UK ranking from 10th to 9th.

First the good news.

The UK’s scientific research institutions are ranked second in the world only to Switzerland. This partly chimes with Times Higher Education Supplement 2013/2014 University Rankings where UK institutions are the second best represented in the top 20, although here it is the USA rather than Switzerland that dominates.

The UK also does well in university-industry research collaboration, grabbing 4th place, after Finland (1st), Switzerland (2nd) and the USA (3rd). This is an improvement from the 2006/7 report where the UK was ranked 10th and resonates with the findings of the 2012/13 Higher Education Funding Council’s Higher Education and Business Community Interaction Survey that shows continuing increases in the exchange of knowledge between UK higher education institutions and the public, private and third sectors.

Another area of relative strength is the capacity of firms to innovate where the UK is 10th.

Next, the not so good news.

Procurement of advanced technology products by the UK Government is rated 44th, one place above Botswana (and one below France). This is illustrated by a recent UK Academy of Medical Sciences response to a consultation on innovation in the NHS that identifies as an obstacle ‘…an approach that fails to utilise procurement as a mechanism to resource innovative technologies…’

The quality of UK science and maths education is rated a worrying 63rd, in the same part of the league as Zambia, Albania and Cameroon. This may help explain the limited availability of scientists and engineers in the UK (22nd in the world). Hopefully implementation of the recommendations of the Society’s recent ‘Vision for Science and Mathematics’ report will help improve performance in both these areas.

As discussed in a previous blog, indexes covering research and innovation have distinct strengths and limitations so need to be handled with care. The Global Competitiveness report draws on large survey of the opinion of business leaders across the world. This means that it gets results more quickly than national statistics that often take a couple of years to emerge. It also gives some indication of perceptions, which can in practice be as important as fact in both policymaking and business.

However, opinion can sometimes produce counterintuitive results (such as the quality of US research institutions trailing Switzerland) and is not so good at identifying absolute differences between countries. The Competitiveness Report also very much focuses on the economic aspects of research and innovation, which is often conducted for all sorts of other valid reasons such as curiosity or the desire to improve health and wellbeing.

2015 will see the tenth anniversary of the current incarnation of the Competiveness report. Given 2015 is a General Election year for the UK, the next edition of the report could offer early insight into the international business communities’ view of the policies of the next Government.