I was at a meeting recently about a European project with which I’m involved. The project officer from the European Commission was also present. Over lunch we were chatting about research funding and he commented that the UK seems to be very successful at getting European funding and that we clearly had lots of financial support in the UK. I pointed out that, in fact, research spending in the UK – as a fraction of GDP – was lower than most other comparable countries. He seemed surprised, so I looked up the numbers and showed him it was indeed the case. I thought I would reproduce some of the data here. I got the numbers from the World Bank and the table below shows research spending for 13 countries that would be regarded as doing world-leading research (I have clearly missed some, so don’t be offended if your country isn’t included). The data is for 2008 which is the last year for which all the countries had data.
It’s clear that, with a few exceptions, the UK spends less (as a fraction of GDP) than many other comparable countries. In some cases (USA, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, Germany, Denmark) it is substantially less. Despite this, the UK is still generally regarded – in many areas – as second only to the USA. I should be a little careful, as the data represents total research spending (public and private) so, maybe, the UK spends more than most on publicly funded research. I have, however, once seen a figure that suggests that there is a link between public and private research spending. The more government invests in research, the more private industry is willing to invest, which might suggest that those who have higher research spending overall, also have higher public spending. Given this, it is remarkable that the UK does so well. It does suggest that somehow the UK’s research spending is very efficient, although it might suggest that we’re just very good at scoring well on research league tables.
The other thing I thought I would comment on is that – in physics at least – there seem to be very few people in the UK who are in long-term/permanent positions that are research only. Most seem to be in academic positions that require both research and teaching. There seem to be many in other European countries (Germany, France, Italy) and in the USA who are employed in what are effectively permanent positions that allow them to focus almost exclusively on research. So, not only does the UK spend less on research than many other nations, many of the UK’s researchers get to spend less of their time on research than their peers in some of these other nations. Quite how we still seem to do so well is beyond me. Maybe we actually aren’t doing as well as we think we are and, if we are, it wouldn’t surprise me if – in the medium- to long-term – we are unable to maintain this high level of research success.