05 April 2007

Does it matter if the UK excels at research?

It may make politicians feel good, and give them something to put into their speeches, but it is hard to know what to make of the news that the UK research impact outstrips US. The press release with this headline gives Malcolm Wicks, the relatively new Science and Innovation Minister, an opportunity to gloat.

"I'm proud to say the UK produces nine per cent of the world's scientific papers and has a citation share of 12 per cent.

"Britain's 21st century knowledge economy depends on science and innovation. We are in a good position - we have excellent science and strong investment."

He doesn't quite take all the credit for the government, but the message is in there. It is also the argument that the government uses when it wants to beef up the effort the researchers in the UK put into turning that research into money. We are really really good at doing science, the argument goes, and with just a bit more effort we could make oodles of cash by innovating on the back of that research.

The question you have to ask is if there is any proof that this research excellence has much to do with the ability of companies in the UK to innovate. After all, as the report that prompted this outburst shows, the scientific disciplines where the country excels include biological, clinical, environmental, humanities, maths, pre-clinical and health, social sciences and business.

You can argue over how they manage to shoehorn some of those subjects into science, or whether they can provide the foundations for successful innovation. More important, though, is the simple minded bean counting nature of the exercise.

Plenty of countries do nicely thank you without featuring as high as the UK in these league tables. Just think Korea and Taiwan. Even Israel, whatever you think of the country's atrocious racism, does very nicely in several areas of technology.

The cue for Mr Wicks's comments is the report with the unfathomable title PSA target metrics for the UK research base. It has a detailed analysis that provides a field day for anyone who wants to theorise.

Take the first paragraph of the summary. This says:
"The UK’s strong international excellence has been achieved with lower investment compared to its competitors. On available OECD data, the UK has a relatively sparse density of people with research training. However, this has led to a high level of research productivity, in regard to both research publications and trained people."
The bit about lower investment could mean that we do it on the cheap, paying researchers badly. You could infer the same notion from the later statement that "The UK produces relatively more PhDs per unit HERD (Higher Education R&D spend) than most OSI comparator group nations." PhD students may not be as poverty stricken as they once were, but few live in the lap of luxury.

The bit about the density of people could be a sign of inequities in the way the UK distributes its spending, a theory that will strike a chord with any scientists who operates outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. Then again, those within the triangle might well point out that the fact that they are a money magnet is the reason why the UK punches above its weight.

In reality, you can probably pick over the data and come up with support for any crackpot theory you care to dream up, including those out out by the government.

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