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Dr. Stephen Scherer, is the senior scientist leading the Personal Genome Project in Canada. He is photographed in Toronto Nov 29, 2012.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Science is serious business. Governments, companies and charities invest hundreds of billions to fuel research efforts worldwide. The results, they hope, will increase knowledge, drive economic growth, improve lives and create new possibilities for people in the future.

But which science matters most and who's doing it? Those are the questions underlying a new list of the world's top researchers compiled by the data and media company Thomson Reuters.

Roughly 3,200 names appear on the list, which represents the company's best estimate of who is making the biggest impact in science worldwide.

The effort is driven by a growing interest among universities to assess their faculty and prospective hires and among funding agencies to compare and quantify the impact of the science they support.

Yet hidden within the global list lies a fascinating and unvarnished glimpse at Canada's role in the scientific enterprise. It highlights where public investments are making the biggest impact and raises questions about how Canada's modest resources can best be used to foster scientific excellence.

Highest concentrations of highly cited researchers in Canada by affiliation

"Much of science occurs at the expense of taxpayers," says Basil Moftah, president of Thomson Reuters' intellectual property and science division. "We think it's important that people know how well that money is being spent and how much result it's creating for society."

Experts are quick to point out that numbers aren't everything, especially when it comes to assessing the quality of an individual scientist or of a country's overall contribution. But numbers do have meaning, and they can play a role in shaping national science policy.

With this in mind, The Globe and Mail has taken a deep dive into the Thomson Reuters data to see what it says about Canada's scientific footprint.

Making the grade

To get a handle on what's happening in the research world, the creators of the list divided science into 21 discrete fields, from agricultural science to space. They then combed through data on millions of published research papers to see which were the mostly highly cited by other researchers. By their definition, a highly cited paper means the top 1 per cent in a given field.

This is a new approach to a familiar idea – that a scientist's impact can be measured by counting how often his or her published work is referred to in the work of others. In 2001, the previous time Thomson Reuters went through this exercise, the company counted up total citations per researcher over a decade-long period. But experts in bibliometrics – the technical name for this type of analysis – point out that this kind of strategy tends to favour established researchers, including those who may have accumulated many citations with work of medium impact.

Thomson Reuters says the news list is better at capturing the current state of science and identifying the up-and-comers who define the leading edge of research.

A changing world

The United States outspends all other countries in science and it shows. More than half the researchers on the list are affiliated with U.S. institutions, including government labs. On a short list of the world's very top scientists – those with the highest number of "hot" papers that received the top 0.1 per cent of total citations – 13 out of 17 are based in the U.S. Of those, seven alone are associated with the Broad Institute, a leading-edge genomics centre run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

But it's also clear the world is changing. In the totals of highly cited researchers by country, Thomson Reuters notes the arrival of China as well as Saudi Arabia among the top 15 science countries.

Today, a significant portion of scientific discovery in the U.S., as in Canada, represents the work of highly talented researchers who have come from abroad. As emerging economies assume a larger share of the world's highest quality research – and benefit from it – that dynamic seems likely to change: More top scientists may be persuaded to stay or return home.

"Emerging markets are spending an increasing amount of time and effort to develop scientific output," Mr. Moftah says. "What started as growth based on consumerism is now turning into building more sustainable growth paths for countries."

Canada's place

Canada has 89 names on the list (91 when those who divide their affiliations are included). That's about 2.8 per cent of the global pie, a modest amount that nevertheless puts Canada in sixth place in terms of global science impact, just ahead of France.

The number broadly confirms what federal ministers of science often say – that with about 0.5 per cent of the global population, Canada is "punching above its weight" in research.

Yet there are clear indications that Canada could be doing better. When countries are ranked by number of top scientists per capita, Canada's position drops rather than goes up. Despite a small and relatively well-educated population, it still lags behind the U.S. and Britain, which are also the two countries that dominate lists of top research universities.

Perhaps more worrying, Canada falls behind Australia and some non-English speaking countries, such as Switzerland and Denmark, in its number of top researchers per capita. These are places where, despite small populations overall, investments in science have developed or attracted a higher number of top-ranked researchers than in Canada relative to the total population.

For Howard Alper, who chairs the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, which advises the federal government, the data may not suggest that Canada is lagging in producing top scientists, but in getting those scientists on the radar of their international colleagues, which is essential for generating citations.

"Networking is key," Dr. Alper said. "You need to be present and known by others around the world. That increases the prospects of getting cited."

One way Canadian researchers can improve their global standing is to wrangle more face time at international conferences and meetings, Dr. Alper said, including invitations to deliver keynote talks.

Another answer may lie in the approach taken by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The institute funds groups of researchers across disciplines both within and outside Canada and fosters their collaboration. The Thomson Reuters list suggests such virtual clusters have a high potential for impact and for connecting top Canadian scientists with international peers. For example, of the 41 scientists in the institute's cosmology and gravity program, seven make the global list of the world's most influential scientists, with three based in Canada.

Top performers

Salim Yusuf, a cardiologist and director of McMaster University's Population Health Research Institute, is Canada's most influential scientist, based on citations. In recent years, nine of his studies, which involve large-scale clinical trials across countries and population groups, have been among the research world's top 0.1 per cent.

Dr. Yusuf is well known as a pioneer in his field and his efforts this year earned him a Gairdner Award, generally regarded as Canada's most prestigious prize in biomedical science.

"To me he represents McMaster, period," says John Kelton, vice-president of the university's faculty of health sciences. "We're an upstart medical school, 40 years old, but we have always been considered, to our knowledge, one of the most innovative."

The numbers seems to bear this out. Dr. Yusuf is not an isolated success but merely the tallest spire within a cluster of the world's most highly cited clinical researchers at McMaster. Among Canada's top 10 scientists across all fields, four are based there.

The country's second-most cited scientist, Marco Marra, who is director of the Genome Sciences Centre and a professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia, sits at the core of a similarly high-performing cluster.

He and a colleague, bioinformaticist Steven Jones, both make Canada's top-10 list. Two others, Joseph Connors and Randy Gascoyne, are in the top 20.

The group has lately become known for its groundbreaking work applying the tools of genomics to study tumour cells. The work involves "a heavy element of discovery," Dr. Marra says.

"We're learning a huge amount about the genes that drive the cancers."

Despite the cutting-edge nature of his science, Dr. Marra adds, the groundwork that ultimately brought him and Dr. Jones to UBC was laid two decades ago, when others saw the need and value of creating a centre for genomics research in cancer.

"This is a really key, important point," Dr. Marra says. "It's not that I'm working harder than other folks, it's that I've had the benefit of this previous investment."

Who's missing

One program specifically designed to bring leading researchers to Canada is entirely absent from the Thomson Reuters list. These are the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs), initiated by the Harper government in 2010.

Currently, 19 chairs are filled at various universities. Each represents a $10-million investment by the Canadian government to lure a global research superstar. In many cases, universities have built around these chairs by raising additional funds and attracting other researchers doing related work.

Yet while many of the chairs are high-profile scientists, none are among the the world's top 1 per cent by citation. At the same time, many of the Canadians who appear on the global list are Canada Research Chairs , who are far more numerous and cost much less per chair.

The contrast is curious but it may not indicate a flaw in the CERC program, which is new and small in terms of total number. The list of chairs is expected to grow to 30 in the coming months. The question will be what happens as time passes and the chairholders have more opportunity to exert their influence.

McGill University, one of the country's most highly regarded schools, also comes up short in the Thomson Reuters list. In 2001, McGill was in third place behind the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia in its share of top researchers in Canada. It has slipped considerably in 2014 and has just two researchers on the global list – well behind Toronto with 19, UBC with 17 and several other Canadian institutions.

Even more striking is the lack of Canadian women on the list. Only one in 10 of Canada's most influential scientists are women. At times, such statistics have been offered as evidence that women lack the drive to succeed at the highest levels of science. A more evidence-based reading of the data suggests Canada could improve its world standing by better supporting early and mid-career female researchers rather than allowing them to drop out of science or languish in junior roles.

With a report from Arik Ligeti

Highly cited researchers by country, total and per million population

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