Director of Strategy Nick Fowler addresses the challenges and future of UK research at the HEPI Autumn Conference

Performance chart researchers

At the Autumn Conference of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), senior UK higher education leaders and policy makers gathered to zoom in on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a new system for assessing research quality and determining research funding in the UK. REF is set to go live in 2014, and with SciVerse Scopus as the sole bibliometric provider, Elsevier will play a major role in what should be a driver of a dynamic and internationally competitive research sector. However, Elsevier’s role in measuring, managing and improving UK research goes far beyond the REF. As one of the conference’s main speakers, Director of Strategy Nick Fowler discussed Elsevier’s increasing involvement in the future of the UK’s research sector.

Fowler started his speech by referring to the report ‘International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base - 2011’, that the Department for Business, Information and Skills commissioned from Elsevier and recently released. “One of the main conclusions of the report is that the UK is a global research leader, but its ability to sustain its position is far from inevitable against the backdrop of emerging research nations. While R&D spending and the number of researchers remain essentially flat in the UK, emerging players like China, India and Brazil are growing these critical research inputs rapidly. China now spends almost five times as much as the UK spends on research. Its spending is growing on average by 18% per year, more than twenty times faster than the UK. This explains why China has rapidly become the second largest source of scientific articles after the US, and is expected to become the world’s leader by 2020. Similarly, Brazil and India are growing their outputs at double-digit annual rates, and together they now publish almost as many articles as the UK.”

He continued: “So how can UK universities sustain and advance their positions in research in the face of these intensely competitive dynamics? There are four levers that institutions are applying:

To illustrate Elsevier’s ongoing involvement in strengthening the UK’s research sector, I’d like to expand on the fourth lever. Against the backdrop of intensifying international competition, UK universities lack robust information to manage their research activities even though they have performed extremely well historically. This was a conclusion of a JISC-funded study that Imperial College London conducted in collaboration with Elsevier last year. It found that universities and funding bodies lack standardised information to measure, monitor and manage their research activities. It found that universities have worked in isolation, re-inventing the wheel and missing opportunities to collaborate with each other, with funding bodies and with suppliers to implement robust indicators of their inputs, throughputs and outputs. This has given rise to inefficiencies in the research system. Universities also lack an objective basis upon which to compare themselves to inform their decision-making.

This is a remarkable situation. It is as if UK universities are vessels sailing on the Ocean of Research without nautical instruments to guide them. Meanwhile, conditions are becoming stormier and powerful well-fuelled new players have entered the race.

The JISC-funded study called for stronger integrated working between funders, universities and suppliers: over the past year significant progress has been made. For example, eight UK universities are now working in partnership with each other and with Elsevier on a voluntary, self-funded open project. The universities (Bristol, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Leeds, Oxford, Queen’s University Belfast, St Andrew’s, and UCL) comprise almost 40% of Research Council awards and account for almost 40% of UK-authored articles each year. The project aims to develop a broad set of metrics that can provide a holistic picture of an institution’s research activities in ways that are consistent and comparable. It is called Project Snowball because it aims to create a snowball effect: by building consensus on the metrics’ definitions, calculations and sources, it seeks to provide a core that others can bind onto over time. A report on Snowball’s progress is openly published. Further details about the metrics, definitions, and calculation methodologies will be made available for all to use in the coming weeks.

Of course, these metrics will need to be complemented by other types of information. Just as the recently-published BIS report used case studies of UK research strengths to add insights to data, Snowball metrics will benefit from other information to provide a more rounded picture, as for example case studies are being used by the Research Councils and by HEFCE to describe research impact. And even then, this information will need to be interpreted wisely: no amount of metrics or case studies can substitute for sound judgement. Metrics and case studies should inform judgement-based decision-making but should not replace it.

To compete effectively in the intensely competitive landscape of global research, UK universities will need to have better information to develop strategies that maximise their research outcomes and to leverage their inputs. They will need to invest in systems to deliver that information. They will then be better equipped to know where they are located in relation to one another and to get to their desired destination as the seas get rougher and more competitive. With robust information and the tools to deliver and query it, UK universities will be able to mitigate the risk of being cast adrift as their non-UK counterparts navigate themselves to safe harbours.”

The HEPI Autumn Conference

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is the UK's only independent think tank devoted exclusively to higher education. Founded in 2002, its mission is to improve higher education in the UK by creating a better informed policy environment - informed by research and analysis, as well as drawing on experiences from other countries. HEPI runs a range of events selected to maximise their effectiveness in reaching out to their target audiences, among which the annual HEPI Autumn Conference.

Research Excellence Framework – driving a competitive UK research sector

This year’s HEPI Autumn Conference – Assessing impact, rewarding excellence: REF 2014 and beyond – took place at the Royal Society of London on 22 November and centered around the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a new system for assessing quality and determining research funding, which is set to go live in 2014. The UK funding bodies want the REF to become a driver of a dynamic and internationally competitive research sector “that makes a major contribution to economic prosperity, national wellbeing and the expansion and dissemination of knowledge.” In September this year, four UK Higher Education Funding Bodies, representing England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, had decided to use Elsevier’s SciVerse Scopus as the sole bibliometric provider for the 2014 REF. At the HEPI Autumn Conference a range of senior HE leaders and policy-makers, who have been central to shaping the strategic direction of the new funding framework, gathered to discuss the process of moving into the implementation phase of the REF.