State funding bolsters specialists' rise to top

October 13, 2006

Specialist universities that focus on technology are well regarded by academics around the world, The Times Higher ranking for technology subjects reveals. But some general universities with a technology focus also do well.

Many governments regard technology (engineering, information technology and related areas of applied science) as a priority area for investment. These disciplines are also probably the area of academe for which industrial funding is most readily available.

The strength of such institutions is exemplified by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's position as the top technology university. It has long been heavily funded by the US Government. It gets substantial funding for life sciences research as well as for its longer established work in engineering. In addition, its students tend to become successful executives and plough their wealth back into their alma mater.

Second in the list is the University of California, Berkeley. It is one of a group of Californian institutions including Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, in fifth and ninth places respectively, that rode the wave of the IT revolution and that now have similar plans for nanotechnology, robotics and other emerging forms of technology.

But the presence of the Indian Institutes of Technology in third place shows that less developed nations can be effective competitors. The institutes appeared fourth and third respectively in this table in 2004 and 2005.

They have been funded for decades at a lavish level by Indian standards, to a degree that has aroused ire in India's less well-resourced universities.

But IIT graduates are leading India's surge into high technology, and the institutes have high-level political influence at federal and state levels, so they are likely to go on being well funded.

MIT is probably the university every politician on Earth would like in their country. In recent years there has been discussion in Brussels about starting a European Institute of Technology to bring its economy-transforming virtues to the European Union.

But this table would seem to show that Europe already has a university, Imperial College London, that can claim to be Europe's MIT. While no European institution matches the IITs in status with our peer reviewers, Imperial, Cambridge and Oxford all appear in the top 20, along with two other European universities, ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. This suggests that European money would be better used to strengthen existing institutions than starting new ones.

This table also shows that technological prowess is more widespread than other forms of academic excellence. The top 20 has universities from ten countries.

Spending on specialist technology universities is simple for politicians to justify as an essential investment. This top 100 includes 25 institutions whose names suggest a technology orientation. In the US, it is routine for these institutions to be key economic players, spinning off companies or producing graduates who launch fast-growing start-ups. This model has spread to other parts of the world, notably to the UK but also to Germany, especially Munich, whose technical university comes in 32nd.

But the ability of regions to produce successful spin-offs depends on more than a good university. It also calls for financial and government systems that support emerging businesses. This means that Europe and North America remain the best places to turn academic innovation into profit.

These institutions are also careful to maintain good relations with larger and longer established high-technology businesses. Many have research relationships with aerospace, automotive, energy or IT companies. A growing number connect to the materials or chemicals industries because of the growing importance of nanotechnology.

The table of non-university institutions producing highly cited technology research is dominated by big state bodies in Europe, the US and Japan, and contains just two companies, AT&T and IBM, both long established technology giants.

Microsoft, MySpace, Dell, Sony and Google may be changing the way people work and think, but they do not produce highly cited engineering papers.

View sci-tech ranking tables in the Statistics section  

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