UK science ‘smashed‘ by US and China in priority areas

Britain’s claims to ‘science superpower’ status look shaky as it is being outperformed by smaller nations on top-rated papers, says study lead

March 30, 2023
A man pushes a Dalek up a ramp in  Scarborough to illustrate UK research ‘smashed’ by US and China in key areas
Source: Getty
‘Wake-up call’ despite claiming to be a science superpower, the UK only produces as much groundbreaking research as Denmark

New analysis that suggests the UK is producing only the same amount of groundbreaking science as Switzerland, Singapore and Denmark should shatter a national complacency that has led to persistent underfunding of research, science policy experts have claimed.

The UK’s ability to punch above its weight in research is often illustrated by the fact that it produces 13 per cent of highly cited publications (the world’s top 1 per cent most-cited papers) despite having less than 1 per cent of all researchers globally.

But a new study by Paul Nightingale, deputy director of the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, and former Downing Street science adviser James Phillips, now at UCL, suggests that this most-cited statistic is “a potentially misleading basis for claiming the UK is at the cutting edge of science and technology” because it represents about 18,000 papers a year when, for some subjects, “there may be only a dozen papers at most that really shift the dial each year”.

Analysing the 100 most-cited papers for three disciplines highlighted as priority areas by the UK government in this month’s revised Integrated Review – artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and quantum computing – the study found that the UK’s contribution to these world-leading studies was far lower than expected.

For AI, nearly 8 per cent of authors were UK-based when the top 100 papers for 2020, 2021 and 2022 were considered (71 per cent came from the US and 11 per cent from China) but this figure fell to just 1.9 per cent when papers from the Google-owned DeepMind were excluded – significantly behind France (4.9 per cent) and Germany (4.2 per cent), and closer to Australia (2.1 per cent) and Switzerland (1.7 per cent).

University-based AI research is “particularly poor” on this measure, with just one UK university in the top 100 institutions for producing top 100 papers compared with Canada’s four, according to the non-peer-reviewed study recently published online.

In synthetic biology, the US was also dominant; 85 of the top 100 papers had American co-authors whereas 9 per cent had a UK co-author, with three US institutions – Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – each individually outperforming the UK. Britain is “not as good as Canada and a little bit better than Denmark”, the study concludes, reflecting private conversations with sector leaders that it was “at least 5 years behind the cutting edge” in that discipline.

For quantum, the entire UK was again outperformed by Harvard and MIT and was “just ahead of Switzerland” on co-author counts for top 100 papers, with a 10-year view showing that Britain produced half the number of top AI papers as Germany.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Nightingale said the study should be a “wake-up call” to those who believed the UK could remain a major global player in research without investing substantial amounts.

“It’s time to ditch the idea that we have some national genius for science that will carry us through into the future,” reflected Professor Nightingale.

“We are being smashed by the US, in research terms, and being outcompeted by smaller countries – the Swiss have one-tenth of our population so we wouldn’t expect to be outperformed by them,” he added.

While the paper also highlights that “the UK performs very well given its limited resources”, it casts doubt on the country’s claim to be a “science superpower”, said Professor Nightingale. “You wouldn’t expect to be outperformed in priority areas by the Swiss, Singapore or Denmark if you were actually a science superpower,” he said.

Evidence that UK science was performing at a similar level to many European countries could strengthen the case for joining Horizon Europe amid concerns that ministers are equivocating about joining the £90 billion flagship European Union research scheme.

“The notion that UK science is so much better than European science so we should look to partner with Asian or American institutions is often put forward, but that’s certainly not the case – it’s based on misleading data that we are miles ahead [of Europe] when we’re not.”

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, described the study as a “really interesting and highly suggestive work [which] provides further evidence that we need to look at overall levels of investment in research”.

It also indicates that “we need to understand much better where the low investment problem lies – because just funding more investigator-driven discovery science may not help that much”, he added.

Douglas Kell, former executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said the UK was still “probably the leader for synthetic biology in Europe” but underfunding for biology was now starting to bite.

“Funding has dropped in real terms by 60 per cent since 2009, and no amount of sophistry hides this fact. Until we have a government that recognises that investment in science and technology is vital to our economy and puts its money where its mouth is, we shall continue the inexorable slide down these league tables,” he said.

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Reader's comments (3)

Extract top 100 cited papers from database with in vogue buzzwords "artificial intelligence" / "synthetic biology" / "quantum computing". Extract nationality of PI. (Optional - randomly exclude Deepmind papers for no apparent reason) Couple of divisions on the calculator. = “It’s time to ditch the idea that we have some national genius for science that will carry us through into the future" Damn - if only we had more geniuses like Nightingale and Phillips working in UK Science maybe we'd be doing better - I guess they're just too busy doing these complex analyses.
Compared to the number of institutions in the US and China the UK's got an uphill struggle, though in some areas we are world leading, hence the number of US DARPA research contracts awarded to UK research dept's. Though just how many papers from Chinese universities are actually their work, not stolen from others, is a question too few are prepared to ask.
The world of research is fascinating but one thing is for certain. On the final page of the document will be a statement to the effect that ".........more research is required ..." When it comes to what to research and for how long and at what cost the debate gets more heated. Allocating public funds for research based on the number of citations a paper receives , seems crazy to me. Weighing a cow does not make it heavier. Surely it makes more sense to measure the outcomes and outputs of research - who has delivered what and for how much. Quantitative and qualitative evaluations of the benefits of past research should be at the heart of allocating future public funding. The way the Government recently decided that more research was being done than they thought, by looking at the amount of money claimed under the Research and Development Tax Credits initiative, and then declaring that their target of 2.5 % of GDP to be spent on research had been reached and there was no need to budget for further funds was laughable. Until we can explain why, and better understand, how 50 % of the money we spend on research is wasted / fails to deliver measurable results, we are doomed to go on wasting more.