EU Research Productivity

20 December 2007 at 12:55 pm 5 comments

| Steve Phelan | 

Interesting post over at Vox EU on EU Research Productivity. Basically a recent study examines the ISI List of Highly Cited Researchers (HCRs) by country,

the United States gets the lion’s share with 66% of the total number of HCRs, while the EU17 (EU15 plus Norway and Switzerland) has 22.3%.

They then use an econometric model to estimate the effects of R&D expenditure as % of GDP, GDP per capita, Anglo-Saxon academic institutions, and the proportion of English speakers.

Raising R&D to 3% of GDP was predicted to increase EU share to only 28%. Interestingly, university governance reforms were predicted to increase performance the most (by an additional 9%).

The article is very vague about the supposed institutional benefits conferred by the US/UK academic system that generate the higher performance. If this result is true, then what is the reason? Is it more efficient incentives such as an up-or-out promotion based on top tier publications? Is it better PhD training? Is it higher rewards for top performers?

That being said, is the “the list of highly cited researchers on ISI” an appropriate dependent variable to measure comparative research performance?  Is it biased towards US researchers? Note that English proficiency only explained 3-4% of the performance gap.  

Entry filed under: Education, Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eric  |  20 December 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Considering the fact that the EU-15 has taken over the top position of the US in terms of research productivity and the fact that the EU-15 is well on its way to close the gap with the US in terms of citations, you could argue that the HiCi measure gives a slightly distorted picture (note that the links refer to graphs only on science and engineering). The question posed in the Vox eu post (Why is it so bad in Europe?) might be a bit overstated. But of course, fact remains that the top in the US outperforms the top of the EU.

    I think the main reason is the fact that high performance is being rewarded, not just financially, but also in a cultural sense (more respect for high achievers). The UK Research Assessment Exercise has proven to be an instrument to reward excellence and create a top tier of high quality research. The US system has a historically grown culture in which excellence is rewarded through its high level of diversity in terms of quality. The (continental) European system however is lacking that, although this is changing (see for instance the German Excellence initiative).

    I think it has less to do with the training of PhDs than with the promotion systems in universities. Pretty much boils down to the cliche of ‘egalitarian’ continental Europe where excellence is not rewarded and not appreciated (although vox eu makes clear that the differences within Europe are substantial) versus the competition oriented US where the winners are rewarded.

    And…as the authors argue, giving more autonomy to universities is a first step here. But as we have seen in countries like France and Greece, that’s not always welcomed by students (and for that matter, faculty).

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  20 December 2007 at 8:00 pm

    It will be amazing if much of value comes from econometric studies, surely case studies would be better to explore the mix of individual and situational factors that promote or hinder research and its application. As for the role of the state, check out Terence Kealey.

    Australians know something about this, with the worst soils in the world we have some of the most efficient farmers, courtesy of an unplanned cooperative order involving universities, a Federal research organisation, State Ag Departments and farmers’ organizations etc.

  • 3. Steve Phelan  |  20 December 2007 at 8:12 pm

    from Kealey

    “Further, government funding of university science is largely unproductive. When Edwin Mansfield surveyed 76 major American technology firms, he found that only around 3 percent of sales could not have been achieved “without substantial delay, in the absence of recent academic research.” Thus some 97 percent of commercially useful industrial technological development is, in practice, generated by in-house R&D. Academic science is of relatively small economic importance, and by funding it in public universities, governments are largely subsidizing predatory foreign companies.

    Scientists may love government money, and politicians may love the power its expenditure confers upon them, but society is impoverished by the transaction.”


  • 4. Eric  |  20 December 2007 at 9:23 pm

    But the question is of course to what extent the in-house R&D activities build on academic science. Maybe the iPod came out of in-house R&D, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Nobel Prize winners Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg.
    At the same time, this example also shows that the benefits of investment in science will not always return to the investors…

    The main issue in relation to the study you quote is the meaning of “in the absence of recent academic research”

  • 5. Rafe Champion  |  20 December 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Part of the problem is the cost of fundamental research in some fields. People used to win Nobel Prizes with equipment made up from odds and ends purchsed from the corner store, nowadays single nations can’t afford the cost of some particle accelerators. Still, the mindset required for fundamental work can’t be bought with any amount of money.

    The story behind the research and development of modern plastics is interesting.

    “Polystyrene was one of the first fruits of the Staudinger program, followed eventually by perspex and plexiglas. Synthetic rubber was a long time coming, although it was a highly sought after product. This was where the American Wallace Carothers (1896-1937) made a mark when he was taken up by Du Pont and given a free hand to head up a team in their research laboratory. He came up with Neoprene, the first effective synthetic rubber, and his research program led to Nylon, possibly the first material that changed the cheap and nasty image of the synthetics.”

    “There is a lot more in that chapter about a range of other products and the ways that they were discovered, invented, developed, refined and popularised. Overall the chapter gives a nice idea of the mix of innovation, persistence, luck and cunning that are required to make progress in research and development.”

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