The right formula: chemistry the key to leaders’ research performance

3 August 2016

Anastasia Khrenova/KAUST

KAUST's Center for Desert Agriculture works towards food security solutions in arid climates. 

Chemistry research was a significant driver of the performance for several institutions.

This release of this year's Nature Index rising stars has highlighted the research performance of a variety of universities and research institutions around the world, including many that are yet to hold a top place on academic rankings.

In some cases, the performance of institutions is tied to their improvements in a specific subject. For the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research, Nannyang Technological University in Singapore and the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia, their rise in the index has been driven by their increased contribution to chemistry research.

The index measures the contribution of more than 8000 institutions to 68 top natural science journals using a metric called weighted fractional count (WFC), which divvies up credit for each article in those journals based on the affiliations of contributing authors.

INDIAN INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE EDUCATION & RESEARCH

2012 WFC: 50.97

2015 WFC: 78.67

The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), in Pune, was only founded in 2006. A decade later, the Indian government has established six additional IISERs, in Kolkata, Mohali, Bhopal, Thiruvanthapuram, Tirupati and, most recently, in Berhampur. Collectively, they have risen to become the fourth-ranked Indian organization in the Global 500 by boosting their contribution to high-quality science by more than 50% since 2012.

A rise in chemistry research output was a significant driver of the performance for several research institutions in the top 100 most improved institutions in the index.

The IISERs were set up to build on the success of India's highest entrant to the Global 500, the Indian Institutes of Technology, says Haripriya Rangan from the Australia India Institute in Melbourne. “We have a very strong reputation overseas, but in India there has been not much reflection of that,” she says.

The IISERs, with an emphasis on fundamental scientific research, might address that. “They have been well funded, with state-of-the-art facilities,” says Kartik Shanker, an ecologist at the IIT in Bangalore. “They have hired good young, faculty with very active research programmes.”

But, the IISERs have their critics. The institutions were set up to span the fundamental sciences, and yet there has been a perceived bias toward chemistry, sources say. The Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, which recommended the IISERs be established, is headed by a prominent chemist, and chemists were appointed as directors to four of the first five IISERs to open. In the index, chemistry research accounts for almost 80% of the organizations' contribution to world-class natural science research.

Alisdair Macdonald

Chemistry output - measured as weighted fractional count (WFC) - was a significant driver of the performance for several research institutions. Full size image

NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY

2012 WFC: 177.60

2015 WFC: 207.83

Nanyang Technological University is one of Asia's research powerhouses, ranked 37th in the index's Global 500. Most of the Singaporean university's high-quality research output is in chemistry, but it has also invested heavily in sustainability and environmental research.

Founded in 1991 through a merger between an engineering university and the national institute for teacher training, it was granted autonomy from the state in 2006 and swiftly transformed into a research-intensive institute, taking advantage of increased public funds.

KING ABDULLAH UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

2012 WFC: 40.51

2015 WFC: 72.19

KAUST is more than just a university — it's practically a city. Occupying 36 square kilometres on the Red Sea, KAUST is separated from conservative Saudi society. Courses are coeducational, women can drive and are not required to wear veils, and the campus has one of only two sanctioned movie theatres in the kingdom.

The graduate-only research university was founded in 2009 at the behest of the late King Abdullah. He hoped to create a premier institute to kickstart Saudi Arabia's research scene — and to help develop clean energy technology to wean it off oil. He left the university with an endowment estimated at US$20 billion, and it recruited foreign researchers with start-up funds, reportedly worth up to US$1 million each, to set up labs. In the early days many faculty members left, claiming the university had failed to deliver on its promises. But the institution's contribution to high-quality research had surged by 2015 to levels 80% higher than in 2012.

By Mark Zastrow and James Mitchell Crow

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