Do they matter: Academic rankings

Recently, ShanghaiRanking reported that McMaster Engineering was rated among the best in the world for sixteen academic disciplines after considering programs at more than 18,000 universities worldwide.

The Faculty climbed in these global rankings. Worldwide, our civil engineering program is ranked 30th, metallurgical engineering jumped up to 45th, and transportation science and technology improved to 49th.

Computer science & engineering is rated among the top 51-75 programs globally and water resources, telecommunications and electrical & electronic engineering are in the top 101-150. McMaster Engineering programs also appeared on the list for the first time this year, including biomedical engineering and nanoscience and nanotechnology.

ShanghaiRanking uses a series of indicators, such as number of overall papers, citations in top journals, and international collaborations to develop the rankings. Most academics prefer it to other ranking schemes since ShanghaiRanking eschews their flawed beauty contests that substitute contest vote counts for academic excellence through surveys of  opaque peer groups.

Being named among global peers undoubtedly instils confidence in the calibre of our researchers. In collaboration with scientists and engineers across the world, our faculty, research staff and students are recognized for publishing papers in top journals that are being cited by other scholars. With this external validation, students and faculty recruits are assured of a culture of research excellence.

While we celebrate this success, we must also consider what rankings fail to capture. By their nature, the paths of discovery and inventions are complex and the results hard to immediately measure.

The modern academic research group in an engineering Faculty is led by a principal investigator. This PI is expected to support a group that can include graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research staff. A typical group requires sophisticated equipment and computing resources that must be maintained, and the group consumes laboratory supplies such as materials and chemicals. Support must be available to travel to workshops and conferences to disseminate the research results and to expose junior researchers to their peer communities.

The bulk of the responsibility to raise funds and recruit talent rests on the shoulders of the PI who must be entrepreneurial and able to convincingly make the case that proposed and ongoing research fosters innovation that has broad impact. The more applicable the research to engineered applications, the greater is the PI’s potential to leverage private sector funding, such as from industry.

Last year, total research awards for McMaster Engineering, including those designated for future instalments, were $50.9 million. Specific instalments for research conducted last year alone were $42 million, providing a research intensity of roughly $295,000 per PI.

Consequently, our faculty members supported nearly 400 Ph.D. students and 100 postdoctoral researchers, and mentored over 300 undergraduates in their laboratories. This talent development, which constitutes an essential impact of our academic research is not at all well represented in ranking schemes.

Furthermore, the more “useful” the research objective the greater is the probability that a PI will obtain research funds. This reality disregards the importance of seemingly “useless knowledge” that is developed solely through curiosity-driven discoveries.

Rankings fail to recognize that the ability of emerging scientists and engineers to think critically is significantly hampered if they are not trained to also pursue knowledge for its own sake that has no immediate application.

The current fashion of taking a DNA ancestry and health assessment would not be possible without the 1953 discovery of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. They, however, had no application in mind when they pursued their research.

Focusing on innovation and value through engineering, we celebrate Guglielmo Marconi as an inventor for very good reason. His important invention of radio transmission is crucial for our economic and societal well being, and our personal lifestyles.  However, the development of radio transmission was based on prior discoveries and statements of electromagnetic wave principles by Heinrich Hertz and James Clerk Maxwell who are admired more narrowly.

While citations of published work are an important metric, an analysis by the journal Nature reports that articles are sometimes viewed and downloaded, and presumably read and used, but never cited. Rather than move a scientific field forward, the objective of these papers can be to advance an engineering practice that facilitates positive economic impact and public good, or otherwise close off an unproductive line of inquiry.

No contemporary method encapsulates the complexity of the impact of academic research. Hence, while celebrating our accomplishments reflected through rankings of academic research, we must also pause to recognize the significance of the important metrics and impacts that they miss.

More importantly, rankings should not be allowed to become so influential as to drive almost every aspect of academic behaviour.


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