Select Committee on Science and Technology Ninth Report

1  Introduction

The international nature of research

1. Research is an international endeavour. International collaboration enables researchers to gain access to larger pools of ideas, emerging knowledge, and highly trained people. There is evidence both that collaboration between UK researchers and overseas researchers is increasing and that it can produce better research. A report by Arthur D. Little Ltd in November 2005 found that in 1992 20.5% of UK scientific publications had international co-authors, by 2003 this figure had almost doubled to 39.2%.[1] In April 2006, a study of the citation performance of papers with UK-only authors and UK-USA co-authors showed that papers that resulted from international collaboration were more frequently cited and were published in higher impact journals than those with UK-only authors.[2] There are also some disciplines such as particle physics or space science, where projects owing to their scale or the funding required, are undertaken by a number of countries working in partnership. Other disciplines, such as polar research, language research, and social research, can be entirely location-dependent.[3] Finally, some of the challenges that face humanity, such as climate change or HIV/AIDS, transcend national boundaries and should involve the best scientists and engineers in the world working together. The success of the Human Genome Project illustrates the importance of enabling international collaborative research.

2. Whilst the UK has traditionally undertaken research internationally, the international scene is changing and it is crucial that the UK adapts its research support mechanisms accordingly. In 2003, the Department of Trade and Industry's report, Competing in the global economy: the innovation challenge, highlighted the importance of trade liberalisation, the reduction in communication and travel costs, and the rise of global communications, in transforming the competitive nature of the global economy.[4] These factors inevitably impact upon the research community resulting in, for example, increased mobility of researchers and students. The Royal Academy of Engineering states that the proportion of foreign students among PhD students in the UK is second only to the US (in absolute terms). In 2003, 51% of engineering doctoral degrees in the UK were awarded to foreign students.[5] The domestic research bases of countries such as China, India, and Iran are expanding rapidly and the UK needs to develop research relationships with these countries.[6]

3. The Government's Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014 acknowledged the importance of international links, setting the objective of enhancing the UK as a prime location for research and development. The Framework recognised that one of the key features of the UK as an attractive research and development location was the internationally competitive nature of its science base. For these reasons, the Government set itself the aim that "the UK should be a 'partner of choice' for global businesses looking to locate their R&D, or foreign universities seeking collaboration with the science base or business."[7]

4. The Research Councils have a key role in helping the Government to meet this aim. Research Councils UK (RCUK) states that the Research Councils:

recognise that to grow or indeed maintain the strength of the UK research base within the evolving global context, and to maximise the UK's influence on the direction and exploitation of world research, they need to evolve their policies and target their investment decisions so that their communities can take full advantage of global opportunities.[8]

The Research Councils also have to meet a Public Service Agreement (PSA) Target to "improve the relative international performance of the UK research base and improve the overall innovation performance of the UK economy."[9] This Report explores what the Research Councils can do to improve their current international activities and policies.

Our inquiry

5. This inquiry is the third in our series of thematic scrutiny inquiries into aspects of the work of the Research Councils.[10] On 6 March 2007, we announced this inquiry into the international policies and activities of the Research Councils, inviting evidence on the following points:

  • The strengths and weaknesses of existing Research Council and Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) mechanisms and activities to maintain and promote international collaboration;
  • International collaboration through the European Union Framework Programme, including resources enhancing partnership between the Research Councils and European agencies in the new Framework Programme 7 initiative and the provision of resources to stimulate UK participation in international programmes;
  • The effectiveness of collaboration between the Research Councils and the Government departments involved in international scientific activities, including the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Science and Innovation Network and the Department for International Development (DFID); and
  • The impact of the Research Councils' policies on the international mobility of scientists and engineers.[11]

6. We received 31 submissions in response to our call for evidence. We held three oral evidence sessions and heard from the following:

  • Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Chair of the Executive Group of RCUK, Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Dr Randal Richards, Interim Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC);
  • Professor Stuart Palmer, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick, Professor Alan Jenkins, Director of the Water Science Programme, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Professor Lorna Casselton FRS, Foreign Secretary and Vice-President, The Royal Society, Dr Bernie Jones, Head of International Policy, The Royal Society, Dr Lloyd Anderson, Director, Science, British Council; and
  • Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of Science and Innovation, Office of Science and Innovation (OSI), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

We are grateful to all those who provided us with written and oral evidence.

7. On 28 June 2007, the Prime Minister announced changes to the machinery of Government. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department for Education and Skills have been replaced by three new departments: the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and the Department for Schools, Families and Children. The responsibilities of the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI), previously within the DTI, have moved to DIUS and the OSI as a distinct body no longer exists. However, its work has been taken over by DIUS and the schemes referred to in Chapter 4 will be run by this department.


8. In the following chapters of this Report, we take an overview of support for international research in the UK. We consider first the UK's current position and the ways in which the success of international collaborations can be measured. In Chapter 3, we focus on the current activities and strategies of the Research Councils, including the establishment of international offices. We also discuss the issue of funding and whether there should be a dedicated funding stream for international activities. Chapter 4 explores the success of Government initiatives such as the Global Science and Innovation Forum, and the work of Government departments such as DFID, FCO and DTI (now DIUS). In Chapter 5, we move onto the involvement of other organisations, such as the Royal Society and British Council, in supporting international research. Finally in Chapter 6 we consider the role of the Research Councils in promoting European research programmes such as Framework Programme 7.

1   Arthur D. Little Ltd., Internationalisation of research and development in the UK - A review of the evidence, November 2005, p 45-46. Back

2   Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, International Partnerships of Research Excellence: UK-USA Academic Collaboration, April 2006, p 2 Back

3   Ev 90 Back

4   DTI, Competing in the global economy: the innovation challenge, December 2003, p 8 Back

5   Ev 67; National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, 2004, chapter 3  Back

6   Ev 41 Back

7   Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014, p 17  Back

8   Ev 90 Back

9   Ev 154 Back

10   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2005-06, Research Council Support for Knowledge Transfer, HC 995-I; Science and Technology Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Research Council Institutes, HC 68-I Back

11   Science and Technology Committee, Press Notice No. 22 of Session 2006-07 Back

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Prepared 31 July 2007