UK holds its own against US giants

October 20, 2006

Well-funded institutions in rich nations lead the table, but Martin Ince finds a few surprises farther down the ranks

Cambridge and Oxford universities and Imperial College London take three of the top five places for biomedicine in The Times Higher world rankings.

It is an impressive performance by British universities, which have held off intense competition from the US.

Together, US and UK universities make up just under half of the institutions in the top 50 for biomedicine, according to the peer-review exercise. Harvard University's massive medical school comes second and Stanford University is fifth.

While no nation can compete with the US in medical research overall (it has 24 places in the top 100), the UK seems to be making its mark. Part of the reason is heavy investment by, for example, Cambridge and Imperial. But there has also been heavy spending farther down the table, as at Newcastle University in northeast England, which is 86th. In Scotland, medicine has long been a strength at Edinburgh University - 14th in the world - but its rivals at Glasgow and Dundee universities are less well rated.

The UK community has benefited from a range of funding sources that includes two research councils, the Wellcome Trust charity and the National Health Service.

Yet a move to merge UK medical research spending by the NHS and the Medical Research Council has so far failed to allay fears that this might jeopardise research. It could, however, also mean a significant increase in the amount of genuinely innovative research in the UK and push its universities higher up this table.

Harvard's consistent high place in this category of World University Rankings reflects substantial academic and financial momentum. Its medical school has an endowment, valued at $2.8 billion (£1.5 billion) in 2005, that is separate from its main endowment. Harvard's research spending in 2005 was $238 million, outspending entire countries on research.

In terms of money, the US has various streams of state funding, including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as a wide range of charities and a large research-led biomedical industry.

But, perhaps more important, this spending has engendered a ferocious research culture that produces tens of thousands of scientific papers a year. Evidence of its vigour appears in our biomedicine table in the citations for papers column. The sheer number of these is higher than for any other research field - more than 22 per paper for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These data come from Thomson Scientific's Essential Science Indicators for 2001-05, and we have not integrated them with the peer-review ranking that appears alongside.

But the US and UK models are not the only ones that can deliver well-regarded medical research - 28 countries, not all rich, appear in the top 100.

An Indonesian institution, Gadjah Mada University, makes it into the top 100 at 73rd position. Despite being the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia has no institution in our main listing of the world's top 200 institutions. Malaysia's top two universities also appear here, as do two Indian institutions.

In common with the rest of the The Times Higher rankings, this table covers only universities that teach undergraduates.

The table of non-academic institutions confirms the strong position of US biomedicine. It features US government centres as well as foundations in cancer and other fields. But big government labs in France, Germany, Japan and the UK also show up as significant contributors.

Steven Smith, principal of the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London, said: "We organise medical research in a very fractured way in this country, between the research councils, the NHS, universities, charities and the rest. It works partly because of our very good basis in biological science and because in the UK, discoveries can be applied in the clinic far faster than they can in the more strictly organised systems we see in the rest of Europe."

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said:

"The UK has the most productive medical research of any G8 country in terms of citations per dollar. These new findings show that our medical research is highly regarded around the world."

  • Link to biomedicine tables in the Statistics section: click here


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