Steve Connor: A Nobel effort that doesn't do us justice

Science Notebook: Britain ranks second only to the US in terms of the leading scientific indicators of productivity and efficiency
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The Independent Online

This is the time of year when a handful of scientists learn whether their work will be immortalised in the form of a Nobel prize. It is rightly considered the top award for physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics – mathematicians get their own prize in the form of the Fields Medal.

Britain has done relatively well in terms of Nobel prizes over the past century and this has often been used as a justification for believing that the country's science is rated highly compared with others. But how true is this?

Nobel prizes often celebrate work that took place decades ago, and Britain's recent medal count has not been quite as good as 30 or 40 years ago. Another problem with using Nobel prizes as a benchmark for success is that the vast amount of excellent-but-not-quite-Nobel-quality research doesn't get a look-in. A better measure would be to study the number of citations – references to previously published work – that British scientists receive from their peers worldwide.

Just such a study was recently commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the outcome looks pretty impressive for the UK.

According to the International Benchmarking Study of UK Research Performance 2009, Britain ranks second only to the US in terms of the leading scientific indicators of productivity and efficiency; and the country ranks first among the G8 nations in terms of the number of citations in relation to public spending on research and development.

The study analysed 8,000 of the world's leading scientific journals and found the UK share of citations in them was 12 per cent – second to the US. We also increased our share of the most cited, or top 1 per cent of the world's scientific papers, from 13.4 per cent last year to 14.4 per cent this year. We also did well in terms of citation impact, coming second to Germany but ahead of the US.

It's further evidence indicating that, when it comes to science, Britain punches above its weight.

Bees go under the microscope

The mystery about the dramatic decline of the honeybee population is to be addressed in a research project with £1m worth of funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Bees of all kinds are vital of course for pollinating crops, and their decline is a serious threat to the human food supply. Official government figures suggest bee numbers have fallen by between 10 and 15 per cent over the past couple of years, but the British Beekeepers' Association suggests the true figure could be nearer to 30 per cent.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and Warwick University are to work in partnership with Syngenta, the agrochemicals company, to find out what's behind the decline. No doubt one of the factors they will be studying in some detail is the new generation of insecticides sprayed over vast tracts of farmland.