The world’s top science universities

No area of intellectual life characterises the modern university quite as well as the sciences. Along with the related area of biomedicine, they have the biggest budgets, they generate the best-paid graduates, and they attract the most attention from governments, beguiled by the apparent connection between scientific excellence and economic success.

When it comes to university rankings, there is more good news. Science brings in the journal articles and citations that are used in almost all global and national ranking systems. This is why many specialist science institutions appear near the top of most rankings systems alongside big, general universities. Monotechnic institutions in the arts and humanities are found a lot lower down.

In the World University Rankings by Subject for 2012, we look at six science subjects: physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, the environmental sciences, and the Earth sciences. Astronomy is included within physics, reflecting the organisation of the subject in many universities. We regard medicine, pharmacy, psychology and the biological sciences as a separate biomedical group, and we view computer science as part of engineering and technology.

The sheer cost of doing good science means that the best work takes place in the richest economies. This is why the United States takes between eight and 15 of the top 20 positions in each of these six subjects. And just ten nations are represented in those top 20s, all of them affluent. While the US takes 67 of the 120 available places, the UK manages 18, and Australia and Switzerland eight each. Also represented are Japan with five places, Hong Kong and Singapore with four each, China with three, Canada with two and Germany with one.

The improved methodology of the 2012 rankings shows Asian excellence in science to good advantage. In chemistry, Peking has risen from 30 to 19, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology from 43 to 11. In the Earth sciences, Hong Kong University has climbed from the 101-150 band to 19. In maths, City University in Hong Kong has risen from the 51-100 group to 19. In the environmental sciences, Seoul National climbs from 42 to 21.

Many continental European nations also have rich traditions in the physical sciences. However, they seem to have trouble translating this heritage into current leadership. The exceptions are ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne, Switzerland’s federally-funded German and French-speaking research universities respectively. They appear in virtually all these tables, usually well within the top 50 and with ETH consistently in the top 20.

The top universities from other continental nations tend to be more modestly placed. Munich’s two universities are top non-Swiss institutions for physics, chemistry and the Earth sciences, with French and Netherlands institutions topping this ranking for the other three subjects. But even these universities are well behind their competitors in Asia, Australia and North America. They seem to have settled into a second division status in the subject rankings, in praiseworthy but not outstanding positions, often beyond the 50th place.

A look at departmental scores in the three criteria we use – academic opinion, employer opinion and citations – suggests the reason. In all areas of science, continental European institutions tend to show up badly in academic review, even though the research they do is well-cited. This suggests that they are not visible enough across the world. By contrast, employers like the graduates they produce. This means that they are succeeding in the key mission of supplying the right people for the economies of which they form part.

The vast resources of US science, including its ability to attract top people from across the world, mean that it has no challenger as the top global power in these six subjects. However, US science is largely paid for out of public funds. As in all countries, research there is not immune to financial pressure.

There has been high-profile alarm in US science at recent decisions to cut back on major projects such as space telescopes and particle accelerators. The comparison between these cuts and rising European and Japanese capacity in big science has compounded the sense of panic. The US National Research Council recently complained that the country’s research universities – the very institutions that dominate the upper reaches of these tables – are in peril from uncertain cash flows, growing international competition, and other more subtle factors such as demographic change in the US.

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