Collaboration and coincidence

by Alex Hulkes

History has been described as ‘just one damn thing after another’. Data on the other hand is often ‘lots of damn things all at the same time’. This blog highlights not one but two new damn things appearing on the ESRC website at the same time, each containing many sub-damn things all of which happened at the same time, or nearly so.

In word cloud form, the text of the UK Research and Innovation Strategic Prospectus looks a bit like this:


No prizes for guessing what the main theme of the prospectus is, but among the words we also find ‘collaboration’, appearing 22 times and being the topic of the first of two new analyses – ‘Connectivity enabled by ESRC funding’ (PDF).

There are lots of types of collaboration that might be associated with a research grant, but in this case the focus is on collaborations between UK research organisations. About half of all grants we issue have collaboration of this kind built in, as a result of featuring principal investigators, co-investigators or project partners from different academic institutions on the same grant.

Taken together these links create a thicket of collaborations across the UK. The image below shows this in a geographical sense and reminds me of the tremendously poorly-constructed wood pigeon nest currently balanced in a blatantly unsuitable bush just outside my kitchen door.


Even with just half of the grants ESRC has issued in the last five years or so featured, there is an impressive impression of connectivity. And not all of it leads to London and the south east of England (although the eye tends to be drawn to the pretty little daisy made up of Southampton, Oxford, Cambridge, Essex, Kent, Sussex and London). A strong foundation on which to build the collaborative ambitions of UKRI but, as shown in the analysis, an uneven one.

The map shows about 2,500 links. The second analysis, on CWTS Leiden data 2018 (PDF), includes a lot more things – millions in fact. Purely as an exercise it takes the most recent release of the Leiden data and sees what might be discovered in it.

Based on a mass of bibliometric information, the Leiden data has many interesting features and the great virtue of being transparent in its methods. We are not using it as such – no one will be awarded or denied funding based on anything in it. But we are thinking about if, how, when and where bibliometric information might inform our understanding of research performance, and how it might be of use in describing and making a case for the UK research endeavour.

It also contains some nice messages, for example that relative to the world as a whole there is perhaps no such thing as a below par UK research organisation, and that the UK is, in bibliometric terms, getting better all the time. A diagram showing the UK’s recent performance in the social sciences and humanities, based on the percentage of publications in the top 10% and bottom 50% by citation count, is below.


And there is the UK, at the head of an arc of success. I’m not sure that the pigeons will do quite so well.

alex-hulkes-150Alex Hulkes is Strategic Lead for Insights at the ESRC, and is responsible for developing our ability to evaluate and carry out data-informed analysis of ESRC investments, policy and operation.

If you have any questions or comments please email

Visit the ESRC website for further details on our performance data, including demand management and grant processing.

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