It is safe to assume that our first international rankings for science, engineering and information technology will prove no less controversial than the institutional tables published last month. Some critics were convinced then that the weightings had been chosen to favour British universities. The presence of Cambridge and Oxford at the head of the science ranking cannot fail to spawn further conspiracy theories. In fact, the reverse is the case: the ranking relies on peer assessment alone, to avoid all argument on aggregation. The original methodology of the exercise could not be replicated because some data are impossible to collect at subject level.
As such, the ranking has the status of a global opinion poll, but one of a very particular type. The sample size compares favourably with political polls that often use no more than 1,000 (carefully selected) voters to represent the views of millions. The participants in this case were academics in an increasingly international system, giving their verdict on subjects in which they are expert. Individual scientists and engineers will have their own views about the "right" order and the measures that should be used to judge universities. These first lists should be a starting point for that debate.