Posted tagged ‘medical research’

The future of higher education: who does what kind of research?

August 24, 2010

Today’s Irish Times newspaper contains more on the anticipated report of the strategic review group on higher education. One of the recommendations, apparently, will be that research should have a ‘much sharper commercial focus’, meaning that there should be a greater financial return for the taxpayer. Research should also be more closely aligned with the needs of the state and of the private sector.

I am personally not opposed to the idea that there should be some greater strategic focus in Ireland’s funded research, as we simply cannot be world class at everything and need to focus our resources. However, this is already being done, in the sense that research funding is now increasingly made available in a thematic way and with an emphasis on critical mass through inter-instiotutional collaboration. I would however regard any attempt to control the research agenda of individuals and groups within the higher education sector more directly as wholly misguided; so I would hope that what is being suggested here is nothing more than a continuation of what is already in place. As for securing a greater return, at one level that is already happening, in spades: the ability of the IDA to attract knowledge-intemnsive foreign direct investment is almost wholly based on the development of research excellence in Irish universities through research funding. But if the suggestion is that the funding should generate a quicker return in both capital value and revenues it is misguided: these are long term investments, and the value generated by the intellectual property will not increase exponentially overnight. Also, longer term returns will be needed to secure the institutions – the return to the state is, as I have just pointed out, the additional success in inward investment.

The report will also apparently say things about what kind of research should be done by which type of institution, with universities doing both ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, while institutes of technology should focus on ‘applied’ research that is ‘closer to market development’. I have become increasingly sceptical about the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, as the development of knowledge has blurred the lines between these considerably. In fact, I would not really know what to make of these recommendations in the context of today’s best practice.

There is, perhaps, a view in all of this that the oversight of research by state agencies should be more directive, and if so, this is likely to be counterproductive. The state is of course entitled to make its funding of research contingent on certain conditions being met, but this must be balanced against the need to encourage and support academic creativity and innovation, which will often produce very valuable results. A better way of looking at research would be to emphasise its significance for national prosperity (and therefore its importance in each higher education institution), and the importance of coordination of the national effort. But it should not trespass on the intellectual autonomy of researchers or the ability of institutions to develop strategic research objectives. A process of central planning by bureaucrats will not yield results.

Clinical medicine research league

August 6, 2010

If you were asked to guess which countries are the most influential in clinical medicine research, measured in terms of published output and citations, which constitute your top 5? Well, the journal Times Higher Education has just published rankings based on data collected between 2000 and 2010 by Thomson Reuters, the journal’s new partners in the global rankings exercise. Before I looked, I guessed the top 5 would be, in this order: the United States, the UK, Germany, Japan and France. I had reasons for guessing this way.

But how wrong I was. According to the table, the top 5 are Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scotland. Really? Belgium beats the US? Well actually no, they don’t. I mean, at all. What the compilers have done is to rank the countries in terms of citations per paper. So Finland, with 21,085 papers over the decade, has 386,878 citations, or 18.35 citations per paper. The United States however, weighing in at number 7, only managed 17.21 citations per paper. But hang on, that was based on 692,884 papers and 11,927,881 citations – and so I am wondering whether you could really say that Finland (or Belgium) had influenced medical research more than the United States.

Clearly academics from Finland have been doing a great job in attracting attention for their published work. But on this particular methodology, if you wanted to be the most ‘influential’ country you would choose your very best, world leading academic and enter him or her, and sack all the others so they would not pollute the data. I am mentioning this not in order to make some smart little point, but because if league tables are to tell us something we need to be careful to work out exactly what that is.

Actually, my own guess turned out to be 100 per cent correct, if you equate influence with the actual numerical output. And so I hope that as the next generation of rankings is revealed shortly the data will be genuinely useful and will be used responsibly. The Times Higher has an honorable record on this regard, and I hope that this will be re-affirmed.