THE World University Rankings 2020: do your thing; we’ll do the details

Top research institutions create an environment that nurtures talent and gives staff support that frees them to focus on their work, hears Sarah Wild

September 11, 2019
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Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2020


Five universities based in the UK and the US continue to rule the research environment pillar of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, emphasising American and British dominance in global research.

For many of them, academics are at the heart of their strategies to maintain research excellence. Creating a conducive environment for researchers, such as helping them to navigate the bureaucracy of accessing grants or ensuring that they have adequate equipment, is a linchpin in their institutional make-up.

The leading players remain unchanged from last year, with the University of Oxford ranked as the best university for research environment. The University of Cambridge remains in second place, while Harvard University, the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University again complete the top five.

But there is a shake-up in the rest of the top 10 line-up, as China’s Tsinghua University drops from sixth place to eighth this year and Switzerland’s ETH Zurich climbs two places to ninth.

The remaining top 10 spots are all held by US institutions, with Princeton University grabbing sixth place (up from seventh), Yale University claiming seventh (up from eighth) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology coming 10th (down from ninth).

This pillar draws on an institution’s reputation for research excellence among its peers, based on responses to THE ’s annual Academic Reputation Survey; its research income, scaled against academic staff numbers; and its research productivity, based on the number of papers published in academic journals, scaled for institutional size and normalised for subject.

Stephen Conway, director of research services at Oxford, says excellent research requires excellent people and, at the same time, to attract the most able minds from across the world to work at the university, the institution needs to create an environment conducive to conducting research.

Oxford does this “with state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure, appropriate support for staff and students, and investment in the training, support and well-being” of academics, he says.

A fundamental aspect is providing support for early career researchers that goes beyond helping them to access internal funding to start their own research programmes, he explains. For example, the university announced earlier this year that it would build 2,000 affordable homes to address a housing shortage for staff and postgraduates. Cambridge has a similar plan to build 5,000 homes, mainly for staff and postgraduates.

Of course, such staff support requires substantial resources, and one of the major challenges facing Oxford, and other UK universities, is “ensuring we have access to the resources and funding to continue to compete with our global peers”, says Conway.

“The contribution that UK public funders make to the real costs of research in universities has declined at a time when other parts of the world are investing in their research and innovation systems,” he adds.

Cambridge has a number of schemes to promote research excellence. Its Strategic Research Initiatives and Strategic Research Networks, for example, aim to bring together a critical mass of scholars to promote multidisciplinary research, make large-scale funding applications, establish collaborations, and influence the global research agenda.

Initiatives include big data, cardiovascular disease, synthetic biology and trustworthy technologies, while its networks comprise, among others, the digital humanities, sensor-related research and public health. These programmes allow the university to foster cross-school and -discipline collaboration to tackle big research questions.

But while researchers are experts in their fields, they are often at a loss when it comes to the skill set required to access funding, establish formal collaboration agreements and keep track of the administration required to run a large grant-funded project.

In an effort to mitigate these issues and boost research, Cambridge has a research operations office – a one-stop shop to help researchers access grants, craft proposals and perform audits if they have received a grant. It is also the university’s official signatory for research grants and contracts, meaning that researchers do not have to wade through layers of bureaucracy to claim research grants and negotiate terms and conditions with prospective research partners.


Research pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

99.6

2

3

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

98.7

3

7

Harvard University

United States

98.6

4

2

California Institute of Technology

United States

97.2

5

4

Stanford University

United States

96.4

6

6

Princeton University

United States

96.3

7

8

Yale University

United States

94.8

8

23

Tsinghua University

China

94.0

9

=13

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

92.8

10

5

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

92.4

=11

9

University of Chicago

United States

91.4

=11

12

Johns Hopkins University

United States

91.4

13

=13

University of California, Berkeley

United States

90.6

=14

25

National University of Singapore

Singapore

90.4

=14

11

University of Pennsylvania

United States

90.4

16

24

Peking University

China

90.0

17

=36

The University of Tokyo

Japan

89.6

18

18

University of Toronto

Canada

89.5

19

15

UCL

United Kingdom

88.7

20

17

University of California, Los Angeles

United States

88.6

21

10

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

87.6

22

21

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

United States

86.1

23

19

Cornell University

United States

86.0

24

22

Northwestern University

United States

83.8

25

=27

London School of Economics and Political Science

United Kingdom

83.0

26

=27

Carnegie Mellon University

United States

82.7

27

16

Columbia University

United States

82.6

28

26

University of Washington

United States

82.2

29

31

University of California, San Diego

United States

78.9

30

65

Kyoto University

Japan

78.1

31

=48

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

United States

78.0

32

29

New York University

United States

77.5

33

35

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

77.2

34

=32

LMU Munich

Germany

77.0

35

20

Duke University

United States

76.8

36

=38

Georgia Institute of Technology

United States

76.4

37

=38

University of Texas at Austin

United States

76.2

=38

30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

74.1

=38

=32

University of Melbourne

Australia

74.1

40

=45

KU Leuven

Belgium

73.9

41

34

University of British Columbia

Canada

73.2

42

=67

Delft University of Technology

Netherlands

72.3

43

42

McGill University

Canada

71.9

44

64

Seoul National University

South Korea

71.6

=45

41

Karolinska Institute

Sweden

71.4

=45

=45

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

France

71.4

=47

=48

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Singapore

70.4

=47

43

Technical University of Munich

Germany

70.4

49

51

University of Wisconsin-Madison

United States

70.3

50

50

Australian National University

Australia

69.7


In the US, Stanford University has a similar portal for its researchers, offering guidance on how to navigate the red tape around research.

The institution has more than 6,000 externally sponsored research projects and a total sponsored research budget of $1.63 billion (£1.34 billion). It also has 18 independent institutes, centres and laboratories, spanning numerous fields from social sciences to medicine.

When she was appointed Stanford’s vice-provost and dean of research last year, Kathryn Moler said: “We have the ability to exert transformative impacts on knowledge and on society through our scholarship, which we can accelerate with new research platforms. Our strong departments and interdisciplinary centres and institutes share the vision as well as the ethos to make it happen.”

This sentiment is shared by ETH Zurich, which is the only continental European university in the pillar’s top 30.

“As a knowledge-based economy, the Swiss value education and invest both public and private funding to pursue blue-sky thinking,” says Joël Mesot, president of ETH. He adds that this approach helps the institution to develop a research culture, build strong research collaborations and create an environment in which talent thrives.

There are many facets to developing that environment. One is that the university has a number of awards that it uses to reward research talent. Another is that there are numerous research grants to promote excellent research. Also, similar to other top-performing institutions, there is an office to support researchers in applying for external funding, among other things.

Meanwhile, state-of-the-art equipment facilitates research and blue-sky thinking, while the university’s technology platforms – such as the Functional Genomics Center, which it operates with the University of Zurich, and the Binnig and Roher Nanotechnology Centre, in collaboration with IBM Research – encourage interdisciplinary cooperation and help to attract highly specialised experts, according to Mesot. The institution also actively mentors researchers through its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab.

Ultimately, the top universities in this pillar agree that research excellence starts with finding and nurturing excellent researchers. This support can take many forms, from ensuring a quality living environment through to streamlining access to funding.

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