Report compares UK’s research performance with key nations

UK research continues to rank above the world average for quality, and the nation remains a key partner for global research collaboration and research mobility; however, its leadership position in the longer-term could be under threat

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The UK has a long history of punching above its weight as a research nation – a position it doesn’t take for granted.

New data analysis shows that the UK continues to excel as a research nation: despite representing just 0.9 percent of the global population, it produces 15.2 percent of the world’s most highly cited research and its field-weighted citation impact is 1.57 compared to a global average of 1.0. The UK also continues to attract the very best researchers from across the globe – maintaining its strong position as a key partner in international collaboration and mobility.

However, in terms of research output the UK may be losing its momentum: the UK’s annual growth rate in published research has dropped from 1.3 percent (2008-12) to 0.6 percent (2010-14), and in 2014, China overtook the UK in global share of highly cited articles. Worldwide, the UK’s share of articles is also dropping from 6.4 percent to 6.3 percent.

Every two years, the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) works closely with Elsevier’s Analytical Services team to analyze bibliometric data and stay on top of these changing trends.

The result of their most recent collaboration, a 138-page report titled International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016 , compares the performance of the UK’s research base with seven other research-intensive countries (Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US), four fast-growing nations (Brazil, India, Russia and South Korea) and other international benchmarks.

Previous reports Elsevier developed for BEIS were published in 2011 and 2013 .

Dr. Nick Fowler is Manager Direct of Research Networks at Elsevier. Dr. Nick Fowler, Managing Director of Research Networks at Elsevier, said:

The UK will need to make strong policy decisions to maintain its attractive research climate. With our data and analytical capabilities, Elsevier aims to help UK academia and government track and measure key success factors such as collaboration and researcher mobility, which contribute to the country’s scientific excellence. As was the case with previous reports we have produced for BEIS, this level of data analysis provides a unique window into the UK’s research sector.

World share of the UK for key indicators in the three reports in this series (Source: Table 1.2 in <em>International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016</em>)

How is the UK performing?

The 2016 report draws on data from 2010 to 2014, which show that the UK continues to perform strongly in the global arena.

  • The UK produces more reputable research than its spend would suggest. While many indicators measured in the 2016 report have remained static, or shown a slight drop since the 2013 analysis, the UK continues to be a highly productive research nation when it comes to articles and citation outputs per researcher and unit of R&D expenditure.
  • The UK research base is well-rounded and demonstrates excellence in diverse research fields. Its field-weighted citation impact (FWCI) is well above the world average and it continues to rank first amongst the comparator countries, despite a slowdown in its rate of growth and little change in its share of global articles.
  • The UK is a key partner for global research collaboration and researcher mobility. The UK attracts the very best researchers from across the globe. These researchers are highly productive and contribute heavily to the UK’s overly large share of highly cited publications.
  • The UK has robust cross-sector knowledge exchange. UK academic and corporate entities are increasingly downloading articles produced in other sectors, further strengthening the cross-sector knowledge exchange within the country. Although the UK accounts for a small proportion of global patenting activity, a high proportion of UK research is cited in patents, and the UK is increasing its share of global patents in force.
  • UK commercialisation of intellectual property derived from academic research is increasing. The UK’s IP income amounted to £148 million in 2014, equivalent to just under 2.0 percent of the UK’s total research resources in 2014, nearly one percentage point higher than in 2010.
  • The UK excels in several technologies that are highly relevant to industry. It ranked first among the comparator countries in four out of nine areas: Genomics and Synthetic Biology, Regenerative Medicine, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, and Satellites and Commercial Applications of Space.

Rise of the emerging economies and other changing trends

While the UK currently retains its position as a leader on the global research stage, the report makes it clear this situation may not be sustainable in the long term as other countries continue to focus on improving performance.

Italy now has more articles per researcher than the UK and all other comparator countries. It has also increased its share of international collaboration and its field-weighted citation impact is set to rise above both the UK and Canada if current trends are maintained.

The significant increase in output by emerging research nations such as China and India means that, based on current levels of performance, more established research countries such as the UK, the US, Germany and France will see their shares shrink as these others grow. The high annual growth in the number of publications of some emerging countries, for example India with nearly 12 percent, and China and Russia at around 8 percent, resulted in the UK and other research-intensive nations seeing a reduction in their proportional shares (first chart below). The two largest countries by article share, the US and China, continued to converge, and India’s significant growth saw it overtake France in 2013. Japan continued to see a year on year reduction in its share of publications, so much so that it is likely to be overtaken by India in 2015.

The biggest pressure on the UK continues to stem from China. The quality of China’s research in terms of field-weighted citation impact, alongside an increased share in the number of publications, has improved. In 2013, China overtook the UK in global shares of highly-cited articles. Although there is no doubt that the UK is well-positioned to maintain its leading research nation status, the report states that this will only be possible if there is continued investment in its national research base.

Share of world articles for the UK and comparators, 2010-14 with right-hand panel excluding the US and China for clarity (Source: Table 4.1 in <em> International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016)</em>)

Brexit and the impact on UK performance

Brexit Resource Centre

The 2016 BEIS report examines the UK’s performance during 2010-2014, so forward projections do not reflect the potential impact of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Elsevier’s Brexit Resource Centre is a source of information for researchers, research leaders, policymakers and anyone else interested in Brexit and its impact on science and the society. It includes a UK Research Factsheet 2011-2015, social media monitoring, top downloaded articles and more.

How other countries are performing – some highlights

  • The most dramatic growth in the number of active researchers was shown by China, at nearly 6 percent. In 2010 it toppled the US from its top position among the comparators.
  • South Korea and Japan had the highest number of researchers per thousand of the population at 6.9 and 5.4, respectively. China and Italy had the lowest at 1.1 and 2.0, respectively.
  • Italy and France had the greatest proportions of R&D (research and development) expenditure funded by Government. In contrast, Japan, South Korea and China had the greatest proportions funded by their respective Business Enterprise sectors, and saw higher percentage increases there than in the Government sector.
  • Both Russia and South Korea spent a high proportion of their GERD (gross domestic expenditure on R&D) on Engineering and Technology (73 percent and 69 percent in 2014, respectively), with the corresponding proportions for the UK and the US being only 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
  • Across the comparators, research-intensive countries tended to show a well-rounded Activity Index*, with the US and Canada having similar profiles to the UK’s. However, the emerging, fast-growing countries were still very focused on particular subjects. China and India both demonstrated low emphasis on Humanities and Social Sciences, and high or increasing focus on Engineering and Physical Sciences. India also moved away from Environmental Sciences towards Engineering, while China’s focus shifted from Business to Biological Sciences and Environmental Sciences. Russia reduced its emphasis on Physical Sciences and Mathematics and showed a dramatic upward shift closer to the world average in Business and Social Sciences. South Korea declined in Mathematics and Engineering between 2006 and 2014, but showed a more modest increase in Health & Medical Sciences and Environmental Sciences.
  • The US preserved its hold on the highest share of citations, at 35 percent in 2014, despite its continued share decline, while China’s share continued to grow sharply by 7 percentage points to 18 percent between 2010 and 2014.
  • The US and China had the highest numbers of publications in all nine of the technologies that have been identified as highly relevant to industry. China led in technologies related to materials, energy and agriculture, while the US led in those related to information technology and medicine. Germany had a leading position in Quantum Technology and performed well in Robotics.

* Activity index is defined as a country’s share of its total article output across different subject fields relative to the global share of articles in the same subject fields.

Share of world citations for the UK and comparators, 2010-2014, with right-hand panel excluding the US and China for clarity (Source: Table 4.4 in International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016).

Download the report

International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016The International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016 report was prepared by Elsevier for the UK's Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It assesses the performance of the UK’s research base compared with seven other research-intensive countries: Canada; China; France; Germany; Italy; Japan; and the US. Four fast-growing nations have also been included in the analysis: Brazil; India; Russia; and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Six elements of the research base are put under the microscope in the report:

  • Research funding and expenditure
  • Numbers and mobility of researchers
  • Numbers of journal articles published and citations received
  • Collaboration
  • Ratio of research outputs to expenditure
  • Knowledge exchange

This is the third consecutive report in this series to be delivered by Elsevier. The first was published in October 2011 and the second in December 2013.

The full report is freely available to download.


Written by

Thomas Gurney, PhD

Written by

Thomas Gurney, PhD

Dr. Thomas Gurney is Analytical Product Manager with Elsevier’s Analytical Services team. In his role, he specializes in the analysis and delivery of data and insights to support innovation strategy, evaluation and planning, and corporate R&D activities. Thomas holds a PhD in Knowledge Management from the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, and an MSc in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He has published on scientometrics, bibliometrics, altmetrics, science parks, large-scale research infrastructures and academic entrepreneurship.
Written by

Sacha Boucherie

Written by

Sacha Boucherie

Sacha Boucherie is Senior Communications Manager at Elsevier, based in Amsterdam. She is responsible for external communications and PR for Elsevier’s Research Intelligence portfolio of technology solutions, including SciVal and Scopus, and works on developing stories for the government and corporate research communities. She holds a master's degree in social psychology from the University of Groningenin the Netherlands.


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