Levelling the research field for small countries: a case study of Wales

Europe is a small continent populated by a range of small countries. Larger countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy understandably dominate research productivity in absolute and quantitative terms. Meanwhile, several of the smaller, high-income countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland are also rightly recognised for producing and exploiting their high quality research.

Other smaller countries, however, have tended to receive less attention despite being potentially as effective or even more so compared to their larger counterparts. They are nevertheless keen to demonstrate their standing relative to their size or resources. This can be achieved by linking a country’s research outputs to its relevant research inputs. In addition, further evaluation relies on normalised indicators of productivity and impact.

The trouble with many comparisons using simple input measures, such as funding, is that they do not fully capture the significant issues of research productivity, impact, and efficiency. Thus, to ensure fair comparisons, the differential levels of research intensity and research capacity between countries also need to be considered.

This is particularly relevant for a small country like Wales, with 3 million inhabitants, representing only 5% of the UK population. Of the four UK constituting countries, it has the lowest regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, one of the lowest levels of R&D investment—measured through the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD)—and the lowest level of research intensity; which is measured in terms of GERD as share of GDP. Although an integral part of the UK’s research base, Wales, unlike Scotland, has lacked a formal appraisal of its own research base. Such independent assessments are important for small countries such as Wales, given that the quality of the research base is increasingly employed as an indication of a sector or country’s reputation and ability to compete successfully in the global economy.

Welsh study

In 2013, the Welsh Government, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and Welsh Universities commissioned the first comprehensive bibliometric-based analysis of Wales’s research productivity and impact. This was published in spring 2014. Critical to this evaluation was the potential to compare with other European and international countries of similar size, outlined in the table below.

Table Halligan

Encouraging findings

As the above data confirms, research in Wales is performing well. The main findings of the report showed that the Welsh research base made a big impact that accounted for a disproportionately higher share of the world’s published academic articles, global citations and highly cited articles, despite having a relatively small researcher base.

With just 0.14% of the world’s researchers and 0.30% of the world’s published articles in 2011, Welsh researcher accounted for 0.49% of global citations and 0.70% of the top 1% highest cited articles. Given the relatively low levels of R&D investment, Wales was the most efficient constituent country in the UK for converting GERD into publications and the most efficient in Europe for countries of a similar size.

Wales’s field weighted citation impact—a normalised indicator of research quality that adjusts for differing citation practices—grew from 28% in 1996 to 61% above the world average in 2012. In the process, Wales moved ahead of many better resourced countries such as Norway, Finland, and Ireland. Despite publishing a relatively small number of publications, Wales’s share of the top 1% highest cited articles for 2007-11 was 0.7%, over twice as high as might be expected based on an global publication share of 0.3%.

Public research open to international collaborations

Key to this success was the university based research. In England and other larger EU countries such as Germany and France, a large proportion of the R&D expenditure comes from business. By contrast, the Welsh research base relies on its universities who secure nearly half of the region’s R&D from higher education funding.

Research excellence is typically underpinned by extensive collaborations across the world. The above mentioned report suggests that international research collaboration and research mobility were key factors behind Wales’s success. Namely, the percentage of Welsh articles resulting from international collaboration increasing from 45% in 1997-2001 to 60% in 2007-2011.

International collaboration not only accounted for the largest proportion of Welsh articles, but it also resulted in an average field-weighted citation impact of more than twice the global average. Furthermore, Wales’s international research collaborations conferred bi-directional citation benefit, whereby joint publications involving other countries—large and small—produced benefit for both countries in terms of their field-weighted citation impact.

Futures issue of sustainability

While there was much in the Welsh report that made for positive reading, a clear concern was future sustainability and competiveness. Particularly worrying was the small scale of Wales’s research base and low R&D investment. The authorities have recognised that a strong university research base is crucial for improving the country’s economic wellbeing and knowledge intensive economy. As a result, the Welsh government, in 2012, announced a new investment of €61 (£50) million to secure greater scientific growth in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

This public investment has already been successful in attracting a small number of top quality researchers to the country. However, growing Wales’s research capacity, particularly in the area of STEM, will require on-going strategic investment in its universities to rebalance the current sub-critical researcher base –all of which will take several years.

Lessons learned for smaller countries

One take home lesson from this exercise, for other small countries, is the importance of employing an internationally recognised benchmarking process as a way of formally evaluating regional performance when compared to similar sized countries. It is also key for demonstrating efficiencies and productivity, given the current economic climate. While such aspects are clearly relevant for large countries, they are more critical for success in small economies where overall R&D funding is less.

Strategic benchmarking can also facilitate realistic target setting in relation to a broad spectrum of performance indicators intended to encourage a more efficient return on limited resources. Finally, benchmarking provides for the identification of existing international links, potential for improved networking and collaborative relationships, and the opportunity to promote a country’s brand on the local and world stage.

Collectively, when used strategically such information can provide a competitive edge when attracting talented researchers and increasing the ways in which research can be translated into economic growth.

Peter Halligan

Head of Strategic Futures at Higher Education Wales

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Bert Kaufmann

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