Diverging levels of research efficiency change the global landscape of innovation

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Recovering from the current recession and building a sustainable economy based on growth and social progress require investments in innovative research. No future is imaginable without a new wave of innovation. But innovative ideas come from creative research, in many cases produced by universities and research institutions. Over the past decades countries have generally increased their investment in R&D, leading to higher numbers of researchers, more research activities and higher research output. Thanks to more sophisticated indicators and monitoring tools, we are now able to measure progress in research and to evaluate the impact of research in the global research system.

This global research system still is a rather concentrated system, with a very strong core and a wide periphery. Despite globalization and increasing access to research findings thanks to technology, many countries still are completely absent from this global community. Of the research universities included in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012, more than half are in the United States (76) or the United Kingdom (31). In research the world is becoming flat only at a very, very slow pace. This is strange, because sharing ideas and knowledge on the Internet is even easier than transferring money. And, in contrast to money, sharing knowledge enriches both parties in the communication chain.

Yet, the massive size of the research infrastructure in the core countries is partly misleading. We know a lot about many input measures, but they tell us only one side of the story. What matters more is the impact of research. Bibliometric measures such as citation and impact scores, calculated from big databases, now allow seeing where the most relevant research is located. Next to research measures, since 2010 the new methodology of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings now also include good measures of research impact, with citation indicators developed with Thomson Reuters, the global leader in research database management. These data are now mostly used to compare universities, but we also can use them to compare countries and shifts in the global research system over time.

The United States still are world leaders when it comes to investments in research. The output of their universities in terms of size and impact puts the country among a select few in the world. Based on the average of their 76 universities in the 2012 ranking, the US score 85.21 points on the citations indicator. But the average score of French (83.40), Irish (81.50) and Swiss (81.20) universities in the top 200 follow closely. The strange thing is that the citations score does seem to have almost no relationship with the research score, which basically is a measure of input. Comparing individual universities on both measures, there is an extreme variation between the two scores. High investments do not at all generate automatically high outputs in terms of citations and impact. On a country level we even see a negative correlation between the research input score and the citations score of -.53. This is mainly due to Asian countries such as China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore, who make huge investments in research but still fail to generate impact. The average research input score of all these Asian countries is higher than the average score for US universities, while their average citations score is much lower. These countries learn that it doesn’t suffice to create an excellent research infrastructure, but that it takes time and probably specific policies to generate research which finds its way into the heart of the global knowledge system.

Dividing citations scores by research scores gives a proxy for research efficiency in a country, at least among the universities who can compete with the very best in the world. Countries with the best level of research efficiency are France, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland, and all of them do better than the US or the UK. Adding a time dimension makes the picture even more contrasting: these five countries are all improving their research efficiency over a period of two years with comparable data (2010-12), while China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Singapore, together with Australia and Austria are below average and decreasing in research efficiency (see graph above).

The global research system definitely is diversifying beyond the two traditional core countries with world-class universities, but the countries in the immediate periphery, mainly in Europe, are the ones who benefit from that. They are not as massively investing as for example Asian countries, but they do it much more effectively, probably by targeting their knowledge strategies better. Ultimately, it will be the research that matters which will find its way into innovation. Smart and targeted policies are probably much more effective than ambitious, but very broad investment policies.

OECD finds greater efficiency outside the elite: Times Higher Education
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Chart source: OECD

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