Select Committee on Science and Technology Ninth Report

2  The UK's position

UK's current position

9. According to RCUK, the UK is a world leader in research and the UK's talent pool of researchers is world class.[12] It notes that "the Councils have been successful in enabling international collaboration, as evidenced from international science reviews and bibliometrics studies which have shown increasing levels of international co-authorship in scientific publications."[13] Evidence Ltd, a company that specializes in data analysis, reports and consultancy focusing on the international research base, states that the UK's rate of international collaboration has increased progressively over the last ten years. Using Thomson Scientific, which covers 8,700 journals of international standing, Evidence Ltd notes that about 35% of 700,000 catalogued research articles published by UK-based researchers over the last ten years have had a co-author from another country.[14]

10. The UK's position could, however, be improved. Evidence Ltd argues that:

The UK has a good share of international collaboration, but it is not as strong as might be anticipated, it is not expanding as rapidly as some countries, and it is less consistent in the biomedical areas where the UK has a position of world leadership on research quality.[15]

According to the DTI report, Competing in the global economy: the innovation challenge, 95% of the world's science and technology is based outside the UK.[16] With increasing focus on international collaboration from the UK's established competitors such as Germany, France and the US, it is important that the UK takes advantage of emerging opportunities and responds to potential competition.

Measurements of success

11. The foregoing statements regarding the UK's current position are primarily based upon bibliometric studies. There are, however, many ways of measuring the success of international activities ranging from focusing upon the inputs (eg. money invested), to focusing upon the level of activity (eg. number of projects or number of people involved), to focusing upon the outputs (eg. number of publications or number of citations).[17] There are often problems with the accuracy of some of these measurements. It is difficult to gather true data relating to international activity because relationships are often developed and maintained at a researcher-to-researcher level without support from, or reference to, formal mechanisms such as those run by the Research Councils. Furthermore, it is difficult to quantify the substantive value of visiting fellowships or travel grants. In relation to the high-level visits that he undertakes to other countries, Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of Science and Innovation, told us that "It is very difficult to quantify the value of visits, but you know how much you lose if you do not make them."[18]

12. The statistics quoted by the different Research Councils demonstrate that they do not have a consistent approach to measuring their performance in relation to international activities. MRC, for example, referred to the number of people involved in projects, telling us that of approximately 950 current active research grants to University-based researchers, about one third report international co-applicants or collaborators.[19] In contrast, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) focused upon publications stating that approximately 38% of ISI (Thomson Scientific) publications arising from NERC funding in 2005 had one or more overseas co-authors.[20] The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) employed another approach, concentrating primarily upon the money that it had invested in various international schemes.[21]

13. The Royal Society and FCO both criticise the Research Councils for the lack of information that they gather regarding their international activities. The Royal Society argues that "Many of the RCs [Research Councils] lack mechanisms for recording information about international collaboration, and it is therefore difficult to quantify the amount of international collaboration which they support."[22] The FCO states that "it can be difficult to obtain comprehensive data on the amount of collaborative funding the UK has with a specific country".[23]

14. In relation to this lack of information, Professor Sir Keith O'Nions told us that:

Research Councils do not […] at the present time systematically collect data on international collaboration that is funded by them. [...] the Research Councils are considering developing a common approach to the collection of information regarding the international dimension of funded research. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will continue to work with the Councils in developing such an approach.[24]

15. We believe that it is important for the UK to be able to assess its position and measure its success with regard to international collaboration and international research relationships. We recommend that the Research Councils and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills work together to develop common mechanisms for the systematic collection of data on international collaborations and to develop ways of assessing their performance in this field.

12   Ev 90 Back

13   As above. Back

14   Ev 42 Back

15   Ev 41  Back

16   DTI, Competing in the global economy: the innovation challenge, December 2003, p 16  Back

17   Ev 41 Back

18   Q 255 Back

19   Ev 129 Back

20   Ev 135 Back

21   Ev 111-112 Back

22   Ev 60 Back

23   Ev 54 Back

24   Ev 168 Back

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Prepared 31 July 2007