Measured excellence in research

One of the comments on my piece last week on the Guardian science policy blog questioned my assertion that the UK research base is ‘in good shape’. The commenter used the relatively low UK spend on education as a justification for this. While I don’t think the education spend figure is especially relevant to research, it is the case that the UK public sector spend on research is low compared to some other nations, so why do I assert that the research base is in good shape?

I wouldn’t deny the importance of how much we spend on research; the whole thrust of my argument was that we should spend more. But I think in measuring performance of the research base it is output measures that matter, not input measures like how much is spent. In particular, I would highlight 3 output measures that demonstrate the strength of the UK research base:

  • The UK performance on article citation scores, that demonstrate that overall the UK is ranked second in the world after the US on this measure. The detail is contained in these reports (both pdf files).
  • The results of the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 demonstrated that nearly 90% of UK research is of an international standard.
  • The UK is the most successful nation in attracting prestigious awards from the European Research Council (Figure 8 in the ERC annual report demonstrates this).

Of course all of these are lagging indicators, but I think they do make a persuasive case for a healthy research base.

The real question is how much better research performance would be if the resources available were increased. This is a tricky question to answer, and as far as I am aware the evidence is simply lacking. One for the comments or a future post, perhaps…