Helping academic research in Europe: institutions matter more than money

Luc Bauwens, Giordano Mion, Jacques-François Thisse, 20 December 2007

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It is widely accepted that economic growth and academic research output are strongly linked. In this respect, it is frightening that most studies focusing on university research underline the relatively poor performance of European academic institutions (see, e.g. Aghion et al., 2007)1. In order to better understand the reasons behind this failure, we exploit a data set made freely accessible by Thomson Scientific on the Web site ISIHighlyCited.com. This site gives the top research professionals working in a variety of occupations by name, category, country, and institutional affiliation for 19 hard sciences and 2 social sciences listed in Table 1. In a nutshell, 5,790 researchers, 1,329 institutions and 41 countries are considered. For each discipline, the 250 most highly cited researchers (in short, HCRs) have been selected. Only journal articles belonging to Thomson scientific citation databases, which are both published and cited during the period 1981-1999, are considered.

Where do we stand?

The geographical breaking down reveals that 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%. It should be stressed that the United Kingdom has 7.58% of the total number of HCRs, that is, slightly more than one third of the EU-share. In the top 25 institutions, 22 are located in the United States, two in the United Kingdom (Cambridge and Oxford) and one in Germany (the Max Planck Institute). In the top 50 institutions, 5 of them belong to the EU17 but only one is located in continental Europe, the Max Planck Institute. The second institution located in continental Europe (the ETH Zurich, Switzerland), is ranked 51st, the third (Karolinska Institutet, Sweden) 60th, the fourth (Leiden University, the Netherlands) 71st, and the fifth (Wageningen University, the Netherlands) 81st. Table 1 shows that the EU17 outstrips the US only in pharmacology.

It is tempting to conclude that the US dominance drives the good performance of English-speaking countries. Things are not that simple, however. The US and the UK are specialised in very different fields. Indeed, the rank-correlation between all disciplines in these two countries is equal to -0.44, thus suggesting that knowledge spillovers from one country to the other are not as strong as what is generally believed.

Table 1: Number of highly cited researchers by discipline in the US, EU17 and EU17 without the UK

Discipline
 US
 EU17

 EU17 without UK

Agricultural Sciences
113
84
64
Biology and Biochemistry
138
40
29
Chemistry
143
72
51
Clinical Medicine
161
36
17
Computer Science
226
45
35
Ecology-Environment
192
73
48
Economics-Business
263
24
11
Engineering
138
32
24
Geosciences
219
70
43
Immunology
201
81
66
Materials Science
159
50
33
Mathematics
221
75
53
Microbiology
159
71
49
Molecular Biology and Genetics
197
63
47
Neuroscience
182
73
39
Pharmacology
93
121
73
Physics
148
74
59
Plant and Animal Science
147
100
59
Psychology-Psychiatry
228
23
5
Social Sciences, General
295
11
3
Space Sciences
206
74
45
Total
3829
1292
853

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It should be emphasised that the comparison between the US and the EU17 hides very strong disparities between European countries. Table 2 provides the number of HCRs per million inhabitants. Switzerland does almost as well as the US, while Israel is not far from the top two countries. The performance of three “small” European countries, i.e. Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, is also worth pointing out. With a much smaller population and a native language that is not English, they outperform large European countries like Germany, France and Italy, or even Japan. Five English-speaking countries belong to the top-10, and it is fair to say that English is mastered by the large majority of the population in Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. As far as its scientific community is concerned, it is hard to think of Israel as being an outlier. The last member of the top-10, Switzerland, is a multilingual country in which English is not one of the four official languages.

Table 2: Top 20 countries by number of highly cited researchers per million inhabitants

 

HCRs per mill. inhabitants

Number of HCRs

United States

16.82

3829

Switzerland

16.28

103

Israel

12.49

47

United Kingdom

7.79

439

Australia

7.13

105

Sweden

7.09

59

Canada

7.03

172

Netherlands

6.5

92

Denmark

5.47

28

New Zealand

5.46

17

Belgium

3.55

35

Finland

3.14

15

Germany

3.12

240

Norway

2.93

12

France

2.88

155

Japan

2.12

247

Ireland

2.06

7

Singapore

1.66

4

Austria

1.59

12

Italy

1.28

72

EU17

3.55

1292

Why is it so bad in Europe?

We view the scientific output of a country, proxied by the number of HCRs, as resulting from the interaction of several types of inputs such as the quantity and quality of physical inputs (buildings, equipment, computers, libraries...) and of human inputs (number of researchers and support staff, their level of education and experience). In our discussion paper2, we use a knowledge production function whose inputs are R&D outlays and human capital. We find – not surprisingly – that these two variables significantly explain the research output.

Our production function includes a country-specific total factor productivity measure, which depends on per capita GDP as well as on two non-economic variables, i.e. English proficiency and colonial ties with the UK. These three variables also contribute to explain the differences across countries. This was expected for per capita GDP. English proficiency explains, at least partially, the good performance of English-speaking countries as well as that of a few other countries in which the population has a very good knowledge of English. Colonial ties with the UK have a different nature. This variable aims to capture the bundle of specific factors related to the governance and organisational design that characterise (more or less) all Anglo-Saxon universities, and which have been duplicated in a few other countries. In this respect, our analysis agrees with recent contributions in economics that show how the design and quality of institutions matters for economic growth and development.

We show that the English proficiency effect is fairly strong. For example, if France were to improve its English proficiency by 10%, thus reaching the level of the Netherlands, the number of French HCRs would increase in the long run by 25%. However, besides their linguistic advantage, former UK colonies also display a higher efficiency in producing HCRs. For example, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US have, ceteris paribus, 76% more HCRs than other countries. In order to match such an advantage, EU countries should more than double their research budget, or more than triplicate their human capital stock, or increase their per capita GDP by around 40%. These numbers give an idea of the strength of the UK legacy or, maybe, of the choice of US-like academic institutions made in those countries. In any case, they suggest that a variable directly related to the quality of the design of academic institutions matters more than the R&D budget, the GDP level and human capital.

We have used our econometric model to simulate the implications of possible policies to be implemented in order to reach a much higher research output. First, if the EU17 were to achieve the Lisbon objective of a GDP-share in R&D equal to 3%, its share of HCRs would just slightly increase from 22.3% to 28.4%, while the US would still account for 59.7% of HCRs. This sheds new light on the possible ineffectiveness of the EU objective regarding European universities. Moreover, if the 3% objective was further accompanied by an increase of both the EU educational level and GDP per capita to their corresponding US counterparts, the EU17 share of HCRs (36.8%) would still be far behind the US share (52.6%). Hence, the EU must seek alternative solutions.

If the 3% objective were to be combined with a deep reform of the design and governance of EU research institutions that would bring them at the US level of efficiency, the EU share of HCRs would go up 37.7%, while the US share would be equal to 51.9%. In addition, if the level of English proficiency were to be raised to the level of the Netherlands in non-native English speaking EU17 countries, the gap between the EU and the US would almost vanish (41.2% for the EU vs. 49% for the US). These last results suggest new policies to remedy the resistible decline of European science.

Policy implications

Money matters in science as it often does in human affairs. Indisputably, a larger research budget would help the EU boost European science. However, money is not the only leverage for European universities to have a better research output.

  1. The governance and design of research institutions and universities are critical inputs in knowledge production, a fact that European researchers and public decision-makers tend to dismiss far too often. This covers a large number of issues, ranging from the ability of hiring new researchers to the linkage of professors' salary and promotion to their scientific (and teaching) output, through more flexibility in managing research funds and the development of research centers having a critical size.
  2. English proficiency is another critical element. To put it bluntly, graduate teaching and scientific publishing should be done in English, even in non English-speaking countries.
  3. We would be the last to claim that university and research budgets do not matter in the performance of researchers (Aghion et al., 2007). However, our analysis suggests that the way the money is used is probably as critical as the amount of money itself.

At a time when the opportunity cost of public funds is likely to rise sharply, this is not necessarily bad news. By promoting in-depth reforms, national governments and the European Commission would vastly contribute to the “irresistible” growth of their universities in the production of advanced and successful knowledge. Designing better research institutions and learning better English need not much money.

Footnotes

1 See Ahgion et al on VoxEu.org, or the longer version: Aghion P., Sapir A., Dewatripont M., Hoxby C., Mas-Colell A. (2007), Why Reform Europe's Universities?, Brueghel POLICY BRIEF 2007/4, available at www.bruegel.org.

2 Entitled ‘The Resistible Decline of European Science’ available as CORE Discussion Paper number 2007/92 at www.core.ucl.ac.be.

Topics: Education
Tags: academic institutions, low budgets, research performance

Comments

Europe's poor research performance

I find your article, and the idea on which is based, interesting. However, I feel that your method fails to capture important aspects of the data used, thus arriving at comparisons/conclusions that are not necessarily representative of the true situation.
The reason is that the ISI HCR’s index, assigns a scientist -and the totality of his output/achievements- to the latest Institution he is affiliated with, and to the country where this Institution is located. This may, sometimes, be accurate but quite often not entirely true. While such an index is certainly an indication of the quality of an institution (a good scientist would choose to go to a good place), it does not take into account the fact that the scientist may have been “nurtured” elsewhere.
To give a real example I came across, Lopez-De-Silanes Florencio, an economist HCR “from” the Netherlands, has a Mexican origin (and first degree), got his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993, was a Professor at Yale for 4 years, and has advised more than 10 governments around the world, before joining the University of Amsterdam in 2006. Seventy-eight of his 104 papers (contributing to his total number of citations) were published before he joined the University of Amsterdam. How can such a scientist be counted (solely) as a “European” in the US-Europe comparison?
A similar problem of course arises with other indices used for scientific ranking, for example indices that give a substantial weight to the number of Nobel Prize winners affiliated with an institution. However a Nobel Prize winner, who is now at University X but did his award winning research at University Y, cannot be entirely “credited” to University X.
Obviously, most of these indices favour the wealthiest institutions (beyond the obvious confounding effect).

Professor J. Panaretos
Athens University of Economics and Business
http://www.panaretos.eu
http://notthemajorityopinion.blogspot.com

Research director of CORE, Université Catholique de Louvain
Giordano Mion
Lecturer, Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics, and Research Affiliate, CEPR
Professor of economics and regional science at the Université Catholique de Louvain and CEPR Research Fellow