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How to be a “top-100” university

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

The idea that you can rank universities in the world has to be one of the most misguided ideas ever conceived. The assumption must be that all universities in all countries have the same objectives. If this isn’t true, the ranking is meaningless.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) has the following criteria:

  1. 10%: Alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
  2. 20%: Academic Staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
  3. 20%: ISI Highly Cited Researchers.
  4. 20%: Articles published in Science and Nature.
  5. 20%: Papers published that are indexed by the Science Citation Index (SCI) or the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI).
  6. 10%: Per capita academic performance of the above indicators.

Now, assume I am a worried university administrator. How can I improve my institution’s ranking?

I would propose the following strategy:

  1. Greatly expand research in selected areas of medicine and the natural sciences that tend to have articles published in Science and Nature.
  2. Expand selected areas in engineering that publish in easy-to-publish IEEE conferences and journals that are indexed by SCI. Better yet, require all undergraduate and graduate students to publish about six or so “SCI papers” with their advisor’s name on it to get their degree.
  3. Sack everyone else.

Also: Make sure you work in an institution which is at least about 100 years old and have focused on medicine and the natural sciences in the past. Remember: Nobel Prizes collected by staff and alumni over 50 years ago, they still count!

I leave it up to someone else to decide if such a rank-optimized university is what should characterize every university in the world.

British MPs: climate science is OK

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

It seems the results obtained from climate science are indeed reliable. It is amazing that scientists are held in so low regard nowadays that British MPs feel they need to jump in and “investigate” a bunch of leaked internal emails from the University of East Anglia. Yes, the peer-review process has problems, any scientist can probably tell you that. Yet it is so much better than the alternative: a flood of bad articles and uninformed opinions swamping reports of actual scientific progress.

For anyone that quickly wants to know more about why global warming is highly probable I recommend you read The Economist‘s nice summary.

Sweden in decline?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I was recently visiting southern Sweden (Lund and Malmö). No matter how I try to twist and turn it, I cannot lose the impression that Sweden is in decline, at least in relation to its Nordic neighbours (Iceland excluded).

Sweden has problems with unemployment, particularly (and worryingly) amongst young Swedes. This is no secret. I also personally know of several cases of fresh graduates (in engineering, biomedicine, and other “employable” degree courses) who after graduating from university in 2002 eight years later still have only had the following occupations: unemployed, garbage collector, cab driver, call centre agent, or studying useless university course because of inability to find a job (university education is free of charge and the government offers a bursary based on a combination of a student loan and a stipend).

I was reminded of this when I found myself standing on the platform outside the dirty rundown train station in Malmö a Monday morning. The scene is almost surreal to me. Amidst beggars and drug addicts you see a series of questionable cabs with taxi signs that are coming loose from the car. The station is filled with commuters who commute from the Malmö/Lund area to Copenhagen. This is a necessity because unemployment in the Malmö/Lund area is very high. When I board the train to Copenhagen it is packed to the limit with commuters. They can barely close the train doors. The scene reminds me of the packed subway trains I experienced when I was working in Beijing.

92% of the 17,100 people who commuted between Malmö and Copenhagen in 2007 lived in Sweden and worked in Denmark. According to the New York Times, 35,000 Swedes worked in Norway in 2007. These numbers are probably higher today.

I wonder if this says something about Sweden as a whole. I doubt it. However, some parts of Sweden are clearly in trouble. It is not exactly a great sign that young Swedes have to travel to Denmark and Norway in order to find jobs. I do not know what to do about the situation. I suspect the primary root cause is the lack of liquid capital in the country. The middle-class and upper-class Swedes do not have the money required to make the investments that are needed for new start-ups to gain a critical mass. Therefore entrepreneurs have to either apply for small sums from various government investment funds or talk to local venture capitalists. The government has no clue (and provides too little money anyway) and most reasonable people would also find the venture capitalist demands in Sweden ridiculous in relation to the sizes of their investments. Hence, companies with actual promise are started abroad instead. A well-known recent example is Skype.