The World's Most Innovative Universities - 2016

Wed Sep 28, 2016 12:08am EDT
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By David Ewalt

(Reuters) - In the fast-changing world of science and technology, if you're not innovating, you're falling behind.

That’s one of the key findings of The Reuters 100: The World’s Most Innovative Universities. Now in its second year, the list ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and help drive the global economy. Unlike other rankings that often rely entirely or in part on subjective surveys, Reuters relies exclusively on empirical data such as patent filings and research paper citations. Our 2016 results show that big breakthroughs – even just one highly influential paper or patent – can drive a university way up the list, but when that discovery fades into the past, so does its ranking. According to our findings, consistency is key, with truly innovative institutions putting out groundbreaking work year after year.

No university does that better than Stanford University, which once again tops the Reuters 100. Decade after decade, Stanford’s students and faculty consistently innovate. Companies founded by Stanford alumni – including Hewlett Packard and Google – have not only become household names, but have upended existing industries and been the cornerstone of entirely new economies. A 2012 study by the university estimated that all the companies formed by Stanford entrepreneurs generate $2.7 trillion in annual revenue, which would be equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world.

Stanford held fast to its first place ranking by consistently producing new patents and papers that influence researchers elsewhere in academia and in private industry. Those are key criteria in the ranking of the world’s most innovative universities, which was compiled with data from the Intellectual Property & Science division of Thomson Reuters. It’s based on a methodology that focuses on academic papers (which indicate basic research performed at a university) and patent filings (which point to an institution's interest in commercializing its discoveries).

The three highest-ranked universities on our list share Stanford’s record of consistent innovation. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ranked #2) were behind some of the most important innovations of the past century, including the development of digital computers and the completion of the Human Genome Project. Harvard University (ranked #3), is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and has produced 47 Nobel laureates over the course of its 380-year history.

But look further down the list and it’s clear that innovation is a fickle thing. Take the case of Carnegie Mellon University, a private research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Reuters published its inaugural ranking of the world’s most innovative universities in September 2015, CMU ranked #56. But in 2016 the university fell out of the top 100.

How did such a big change occur? The high quality of a Carnegie Mellon education hasn’t changed: It’s still regarded as one of the top universities in the United States, and its computer science program is often considered the best in the world. But in 2015 CMU’s ranking got a big boost from a few blockbuster patents that are now more than a decade old.

One such patent, which described new biocompatible polymers that can be used in human patients for applications such as wound repair, was frequently cited by outside researchers as “prior art” in their own patent applications. It received 27 citations in 2008, more than any other CMU patent that year. But in subsequent years its influence dropped. Since Reuters’ methodology only considers citations within a recent window of time, the 2016 ranking no longer includes this patent from 2008 and citations to it – and as a result CMU’s big discovery doesn’t have the same effect on its score. The university didn’t do anything wrong to cause it to drop off the list, that’s just the nature of innovation. One discovery can cause a sudden leap forward, and have an outsized impact on the world.   Continued...

Students retrieve their bicycles after leaving a class, at the Main Quad at Stanford University in Stanford, California, May 9, 2014.      REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach