Forget Harvard, Oxford is a match for Minnesota

Magazine claims the ancient university's science reputation is slipping. Melanie Newman writes.

January 17, 2008

While Oxford University is usually placed in the same league as Harvard or Yale, it is actually more like the University of Minnesota when it comes to the quality of its scientific research, an academic has argued.

Bruce Charlton, reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, has calculated that if you take the total number of times Oxford researchers are cited by their peers, the number of highly cited academics at the university, and the number of Nobel prizes its staff have won, then Minnesota is its closest match.

In the current edition of the Oxford Magazine, Dr Charlton writes that Oxford has 45 academics identified as "highly cited" by Thomson Scientific and Minnesota has 47, while the University of California, Berkeley has 86 and the University of California, San Diego has 60.

Oxford and Minnesota have the same level of total citations for the period 2000-04. While Minnesota claimed its first Nobel laureate in 2007, Oxford's most recent laureate was in 1973.

Dr Charlton told Times Higher Education: "I was surprised by how poorly Oxford did. I wasn't expecting it to be up there with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but I thought it might make the second tier. People will argue that these are crude measures, but I can't think of any better ones."

Although Oxford is strong in the arts and humanities, Dr Charlton notes that these are culture-specific and harder to measure objectively.

"Since a university can only prove its superiority in science, science is what is used to measure status," he said. "And in terms of science, Oxford is no longer especially distinguished - neither in volume nor in quality."

Europe is littered with once-great universities such as the Sorbonne, Bologna and Berlin, he said. "I suggest that Oxford may be on this path."

Oxford has been catching up with the best US universities in terms of total numbers of publications and citations, a trend that Dr Charlton believes is due to the research assessment exercise. But he said that the RAE has led to a decline in "revolutionary science", with a longer-term negative impact.

Rather than being encouraged to tackle tough problems where the risk of failure is high, the best of Oxford's scientists are being pressured to undertake easier, short-term research, Dr Charlton said.

This kind of research has a higher probability of getting funding and fits well into the RAE's time frame. Scientists who choose to aim high sacrifice their short-term productivity and, in doing so, they risk losing their departments hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra money.

One Oxford scientist who wished to remain anonymous said: "The article makes an important point. However, the cause may be less the RAE than the practices of the research councils in choosing which research to fund. They tend to fund research they feel is sure to succeed on plan in a three-year timescale. By comparison, the RAE is generous in allowing six to eight years.

"The research councils have also become more and more top-down, deciding what areas of research they want to fund in special programmes and losing openness to the ideas of the researchers themselves," the Oxford scientist added.

Brian Foster, professor of experimental physics at Oxford, said: "The measurement of productivity by numbers of publications is what is forcing people to publish quickly and often. I am reminded of the famous quote by Wolfgang Pauli: 'I don't object to the fact that you think slowly. What I do object to is if you publish faster than you think'."

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