Hot on the heels of last week’s 2011 National SET statistics (our friends at the Campaign for Science and Engineering and RCUK have already offered their highlights), today sees the launch of the BIS commissioned report, ‘International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2011’.

These datasets and analyses are the kind of things that those of us who work on issues relating to science and research funding, performance, and infrastructure will pore over to try and identify strengths and weaknesses of the UK science landscape, and to – sometimes tenuously – predict the impact of current policies on future performance. Everyone loves a good statistic, and if you can create a pretty picture for good measure, so much the better.

The BIS/Elsevier report has plenty of pretty pictures. The ‘International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2011’ concentrates on the impact of UK research activities in relation to its international partners. This report paints a quite positive picture of the UK’s global research standing. It acknowledges the lagging performance in some areas of R&D spending, but demonstrates that the UK is very good at getting value for the money that it puts in. The oft repeated string of statistics (including in the Society’s report The Scientific Century) – with 1% of the global population, 3% of global research spend, and 4% of global researchers, the UK produces 6% of global publications, 11% of global citations, and 14% of the most highly cited publications – is reinforced in the new and updated data. The UK is the most productive leading economic nation in research, delivering more highly cited publications both per pound spent, and per researcher, than any of the other leading scientific nations.

Less clear cut is the UK’s performance in knowledge transfer activities. The traditional metric of patent applications shows the UK to outperform only Italy within the G8. The report also looks at licensing income and start-ups, the migration of researchers to and from corporate posts, and collaborative publications between corporate and non-corporate authors; each of these show that the UK has some way to go to maximise KT, and could potentially learn from the activities of some of the comparator countries. Each of these metrics are all interesting, but will need developing and enhancing over time to give a richer understanding of how the UK and others are actually performing.

But most interesting in this report is the information on collaboration and mobility. The Royal Society worked with Elsevier, who have provided the data and analysis for the BIS publication, in Knowledge, networks and nations (KNN), and these are themes which we looked at from a global perspective in that study. Here, the approach to analysing the impact of collaborative papers is very similar, and demonstrates that the UK benefits significantly in terms of academic impact from international co-authorship. This ‘benefit’ is counted by looking at citation impact; this is open to all sorts of caveats and criticisms, including the suspicion that a multiplier effect is gained simply through the fact that there are multiple authors, (in KNN, the Society describes citation metrics as ‘a lagging indicator, as well as sometimes a crude one’), but citation impact is the current universally collated measure of academic impact, and as such is useful in benchmarking the academic currency that is the research paper.

The 2010 statistics on publications show that 46% of UK research papers are the product of co-authorship with international partners, and that these co-authored papers produce higher impact ratios than the world and UK averages in the large majority of cases. This rate of collaboration is particularly high, with only France reaching a higher rate among the G8, and with emerging nations such as China and Brazil being much less prolific collaborators. The UK contributes more to the relative impact of collaborative papers with many partners than it receives, but it rarely loses out on impact. The report authors describe this as the UK “taking the role of ‘master’ in the ‘master-pupil’ view of collaboration”. But the major message is that as good as collaborating with the UK might be for partners, the UK gets a lot out of it too, enhancing academic impact, and developing links with mature and developing research bases and markets around the world.

On mobility, the report has new data to offer, presented in what Elsevier described yesterday as a ‘BIS Mac’ (see the diagram on page 21 of the report to see flows of people made to look like a beefburger). Using addresses on publications to identify movement of individuals, the figures suggest that 63% of researchers based in the UK between 1996 and 2010 have also worked elsewhere in the period. For those who spend more than two years in the country at a time, the UK has ‘lost’ 10% of its research workforce overseas – this including those who have made a one way trip out of the UK, and those who have undertaken a longer term contract in the UK from overseas and then moved on – and has ‘gained’ 8.5%. This apparent loss is balanced by the fact that those who the UK attracts long term are relatively more productive than those who leave, and of similar seniority. More striking is that 44% of the UK research population are ‘transitory’, that is to say that they are publishing at multiple addresses over the period, with apparently less than two years spent abroad at any one time, and that they are more productive as a result of their overseas activity. The influence of this brain circulation on the UK research base appears to be demonstrably positive, resulting in higher productivity, higher impact, and attracting senior researchers to the country.

Collaboration and mobility are generally driven by scientific and personal imperatives –summed up as seeking out conditions to pursue quality and effectiveness and career opportunities, and accessing people and resources. They also both require a facilitative environment, provided by funders and Government, as suggested in the Society’s recommendations in Knowledge, networks and nations.

In particular on mobility, it will be important that, if the UK is to continue to benefit from a flow of researchers through its universities and research institutes, visa regulations should not deter the brightest scientists from coming to the UK. The Royal Society, along with other lead agencies, acts as a ‘designated competent body’ in recommending candidates for the Exceptional Talent visa in the UK (Tier 1), but it is not only at this level that the UK needs to keep the doors open. It is important that the forthcoming Innovation and Research strategy, and Government immigration policy more generally, encourages global research talent to the UK at all levels of seniority, and for both long and short periods.

David Willetts will this afternoon celebrate the UK’s status as the ‘most productive research base in the world’ in his Gareth Roberts Memorial Lecture. This is indeed a good news story, and reflects the excellent science and research that the UK has consistently produced. But in the current climate of real terms reductions to the science budget, and given increasing investments elsewhere in the world, the big question is can the UK maintain its world-leading position? And can the UK ensure that it remains open to excellent science and scientists from around the world? The UK research community is clearly experienced and successful at delivering more from less; the 2013 and 2015 iterations of this study will show if researchers can continue this feat.

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