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Feridun Hamdullahpur

Feridun Hamdullahpur

Feridun Hamdullahpur

Why university research rankings miss the bigger picture Add to ...

Feridun Hamdullahpur is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, and vice-chair of U15, Canada’s association of research-intensive universities. Follow him on Twitter @uWaterlooPres

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Buzzfeed, the Internet phenomenon that journalists and marketers around the world are seeking to replicate at breakneck speed, taps in to our human instinct to try to bring order to the things around us with entertaining nonsense. (Anyway, they got it wrong – the top album kids need to hear before high school is Blind Faith’s Blind Faith.).

This obsession with lists isn’t new. People love lists. Not even The Globe is immune (Four kinds of insurance you don’t need).

So it’s hardly surprising that the education sector has seen a plethora of rankings emerge in recent years. Canadian institutions are ordered by Times Higher Education, Quacquarelli Symonds, Maclean’s, The Globe, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and many, many more.

In the post-secondary context, rankings are a good thing on the whole – they help students choose schools, governments gauge the health of the system, and institutions compare against one another – and they certainly aren’t going away.

It’s essential, however, to keep them in perspective. Top-line takeaways from these rankings can so easily skew the bigger picture. At a time when Canada’s program of university research is charging in a very positive direction, we mustn’t be distracted or deterred.

Take the latest to report – the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers list (“The scientists who matter most” – July 5, 2014). There is a strong temptation to look at Canada’s performance in this ranking and conclude that we’re doing something wrong. After all – when adjusted for population, Canada ranks behind Switzerland, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Belgium and Sweden in the number of researchers who made the list.

Some professors will say that one of the most perilous ways of using bibliometric data – as the Reuters list does – is to make comparisons across disciplines. Each discipline has its own publication and citation dynamics. The danger of the list is that it leaves those not steeped in the methodological nuances of higher-ed rankings at risk of reading too much into what is a highly synthetic rankings outcome.

At a basic level, it’s like trying to work out who is the best sportsperson in the world. Can we really draw anything from a ranking of, say, Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, Rory McIlroy and Sidney Crosby? They are superstars in their respective sports – but aside from filling hours on sports radio, I doubt we learn anything by comparing players in different sports.

But the point here is not to attack one specific ranking outcome or organization – in fact, like all good rankers, Thomson-Reuters makes important methodological improvements every year. Rather, the point is that Canada’s research confidence shouldn’t be shaken by a single ranking and there is so much more to research than simply the number of times you are cited.

In fact, thanks to smart policy and funding decisions, Canada’s university system is very much on the right track when it comes to research.

From Canada Excellence Research Chairs – I witness the impact that Waterloo’s prestigious CERCs are making in the frontier disciplines of quantum computing and eco-hydrology, virtually invisible to Thomson-Reuters – to their cousins the Canada Research Chairs, to Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships, to the Canada Foundation for Innovation to the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program, Canada’s high-level research incentives and opportunities are well-designed and beginning to yield results. They are also attracting world-leading researchers to our country, giving our universities a qualitative edge.

And the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), announced earlier this year, is a solid commitment for ongoing support to research. At $1.5-billion over 10 years, this program will allow Canadian research-intensive universities to really push the boundary of global research excellence while providing Canada with the intelligence it needs to compete in the economy of tomorrow.

There is room for Canada to do better when it comes to research. For example, industry partnership with academia needs a shot in the arm. It is crucial that we start to expand the links between private sector R&D and Canadian universities soon against the backdrop of increased public-sector support.

But Canada’s research performance is, in the main, outstanding. Our researchers are internationally well-networked according to the OECD, our universities are strongly represented in most credible global academic rankings, and Canada is on the leading edge of multiple high-potential disciplines.

Lists are handy, but they also risk oversimplification – whether comparing essential albums, sport superstars or research firepower.

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