The top 10 institutions for Earth and environmental sciences in 2018

These 10 institutions in the Nature Index were the largest contributors to Earth and environmental sciences papers published in 82 leading journals in 2018.

20 June 2019

Nature Index

Andre Kunzelmann / UFZ

Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research investigate sustainable water use in Mongolia.

While many of the highest performing institutions this year feature in several top 10 rankings by subject, the Earth and environmental sciences category highlights a number of highly specialised institutions that only appear in this top 10 for 2018, including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), and the US Geological Survey (USGS).

The University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), dropped out of the top 10 this year, while China’s Nanjing University and the University of California, Berkeley climbed the ranks to enter at the 6th and 8th places, respectively.

View the 2019 Annual Tables top 100 (Earth & environmental sciences).


1. Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Fractional count: 247.19, (17.5%), Article count: 730

As in chemistry and physical sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has retained first place in the Earth and environmental sciences rankings in the Nature Index for four consecutive years. Among the 105 CAS research institutes, at least 28 primarily study the Earth and environmental sciences. Its specialisations include ecology, mining, oceanography and palaeontology.

While the fight against haze and pollution has brought massive funding to CAS scientists at institutions such as the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, booming palaeontology studies are contributing an increasing number of studies published in leading journals.

There are also extensive collaborations, both within CAS and with external partners, particularly among young researchers, says Yan Hong from the Institute of Earth Environment in Xi’an, who is a major coordinator of young CAS Earth scientists’ networking activities.

2. Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

Fractional count: 137.66 (8.2%), Article count: 407

From the depths of the ocean to deep outer space, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres covers the entire gamut of Earth and environmental sciences. For the fourth consecutive year, it has maintained its position in the Nature Index as the 2nd leading institution in the discipline.

Within the 19 research centres that make up Helmholtz as the largest scientific organisation in Germany, researchers are developing a new sensor-based system that will monitor environmental trends and events in coastal areas, polar regions, in the ocean, and on land. This Modular Observation Solutions for Earth Systems will be implemented over the next five years, with Helmholtz investing €28 million (approximately US$32 million).

In 2018, researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute of the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research discovered a massive asteroid impact crater beneath an ice sheet in Greenland. The resulting Science Advances paper was among the most widely discussed online last year.

3. French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Fractional count 96.92 (-2.6%), Article count: 691

The French National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS) is a global leader in multidisciplinary research and fundamental science.

Its major Earth and environmental science hubs are the National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy (INSU) and the Institute of Ecology and Environment (INEE). With scientists stationed everywhere from the Changri-Nup glacier in the Nepalese Himalayas, and the mangroves of French Guiana, to way out on the Kerguelen islands of Antarctica, the CNRS’s investigation into Earth’s form, function, and lifeforms extends around the globe.

Its Ice Memory programme, launched in 2015 by the glaciologists Jérôme Chappellaz and Patrick Ginot, aims to create a global ice archive sanctuary in Antarctica to preserve invaluable information about the climate of the past. A recent study by CNRS ecologists into why global seabird numbers have fallen by 70% since 1950 had some worrying conclusions for the fisheries industry.

4. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich)

Fractional count: 87.43 (7.2%), Article count: 247

When the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) opened its doors in 1855, studying the geology of the Swiss Alps was the institution’s sole focus in the Earth and environmental sciences. Today, ETH Zurich’s research investigates an array of topics, from inspecting the composition of Earth’s core to unravelling the evolutionary history of the Solar System.

ETH Zurich’s strong funding base is key to attracting and retaining top global talent. Derek Vance, head of the Department of Earth Sciences, says it also enables researchers to “aim high, take risks, and develop their research over the long-term.”

In 2018, ETH Zurich researchers found evidence that the Campi Flegrei (or “burning fields”) volcanic region near Naples is in the early stages of a new eruption cycle. Published in Science Advances, the findings present a new approach to uncovering the evolution of magma cycles.

5. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Fractional count: 78.09 (-26.3%), Article count: 392

Whether tracking changes in Earth’s atmosphere, or detecting potential signs of life on Mars, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is making giant leaps in the Earth and environmental sciences. The discipline accounts for more than 70% of NASA’s overall research output in journals tracked by the Nature Index.

Exploring the Solar System is NASA’s mission, so the government institution is deeply engaged in researching not just space, but Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land-based systems. In May 2019, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, an instrument that will measure carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere from the International Space Station.

In 2018, NASA scientists were part of an international team that discovered that dunes formed from frozen methane grains on Pluto. The dunes were detected by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched in 2006.

6. Nanjing University (NJU)

Fractional count: 75.26 (21.9%), Article count: 218

Nanjing University (NJU) has a strong foundation in the Earth and environmental sciences. Its Schools of the Environment, Earth Sciences and Engineering, Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences, and Atmospheric Sciences are the primary contributors to its robust performance in the discipline.

According to Xu Xisheng from the NJU-run State Key Laboratory of Mineral Deposits Research, the university has set up several major Earth and environmental sciences research programmes not only to advance scientific problem-solving, but to address national priorities related to the use of natural resources and curbing of severe pollution.

A prominent Science paper that involved NJU researchers in 2019 reported greater cooling effects caused by aerosols than previously thought — a finding that points to the complexity of modelling required for climate-change predictions.

7. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Fractional count: 61.92 (-24.4%), Article count: 253

Located near the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a leading producer of research in the Earth and environmental sciences. For the fourth year in a row, it has ranked among the top 10 institutions contributing high-quality output in the field.

Caltech is home to world-class facilities dedicated to exploring Earth and beyond, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. The large-scale Earth Surface Dynamics Laboratory includes a 12-metre tilting flume, used to explore how sediment is eroded, transported and deposited on Earth’s surface.

A paper published in Science last year reported evidence of ancient organic molecules embedded in 3-billion-year-old rocks on Mars, detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover.

8. University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

Fractional count: 61.50 (9.1%), Article count: 214

Home of the first seismograph in the western hemisphere, the University of California, Berkeley’s (UC Berkeley) strength in the Earth and environmental sciences spans almost 150 years. Its legacy continues as a world leader in earthquake and volcanic activity monitoring, climate change modelling, and geochronology.

Among its large research facilities is the Paleomagnetism Lab, which features a superconducting rock magnetometer within a three-layer magnetostatic shield. Used to pinpoint the age of fossils, rocks and planetary materials, the lab’s team characterises variations in the geomagnetic field to glean the reliability of rock records.

In 2018, a Science paper published by UC Berkeley revealed that some mammals are becoming nocturnal to avoid interacting with humans. The much-discussed study investigated the activities of 62 mammal species across six continents.

9. University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder)

Fractional count: 60.13 (-11.1%), Article count: 258

One of the most sustainable campuses in the United States, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) has invested in solutions to big environmental problems, from climate change to pollution, for more than half a century. These green efforts are reflected in CU Boulder’s research output, with the Earth and environmental sciences accounting for more than a quarter of its articles in journals tracked by the Nature Index.

CU Boulder takes a collaborative approach to tackling global challenges, partnering with several organisations such the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the US Geological Society. More than 800 environmental scientists work at the CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

According to James White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the institution’s collaborative spirit is central to its values. “Pedigree is not important,” says White. “What’s important is the science.”

Last year, CU Boulder researchers led a study that investigated the impact of household products on air pollution. The paper, published in Science, so far has the highest Altmetric score of all articles produced by the institution.

10. US Geological Survey (USGS)

Fractional count: 58.58 (-15.5%), Article count: 160

Created as a last-minute amendment to an act of Congress in 1879, and now led by former NASA astronaut, James F. Reilly, the US Geological Survey (USGS) is a fact-finding organisation with the motto, “Science for a changing world”. As the sole scientific agency of the US Department of the Interior, it is responsible for research in four major disciplines — biology, geography, geology, and hydrology.

Based in Reston, Virginia, and with an annual budget of US$922 million and 6,862 full-time staff as of 2018, its focus is on seven mission areas: climate and land use change; core science systems; ecosystems; energy and minerals; environmental health; natural hazards; and water. In 2018, a prominent Science Advances paper by USGS researchers predicted that sea level rise could displace millions of people from small island states within just two generations.

Pre-2018 rankings may have since changed due to adjustment for a small annual variation in the total number of articles published in the journals


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