Nature Index tallies top research papers by scientists nationwide, reveals troubling trends for American science
ANN ARBOR—A new ranking shows the research strength of the University of Michigan in the natural sciences, placing it in the top 10 of American institutions for producing articles in the most selective science publications. Among publicly funded institutions, U-M placed fourth.
The Nature Index, compiled by one of the world's top science publishing groups, bases its rankings on publications in the top tier of scientific journals, which select only the highest-quality and most important work in a particular scientific field. In 2016, U-M researchers accounted for 999 articles in these journals. It's the first time Nature has compiled rankings for U.S. institutions.
In addition to its overall 8th ranking, U-M was 8th in physical sciences, 10th in chemistry, 17th in the life sciences and 18th in earth and environmental sciences. U-M is the only Michigan-based institution in the top 50 overall ranking.
"We are honored to be recognized for the work of our faculty and students in the natural sciences," said S. Jack Hu, vice president for research. "Excellence in these fundamental disciplines also underlies achievements in many other fields at the University of Michigan ranging from engineering to medicine."
In addition to the ranking based on one year's worth of analysis, the Nature Index also examines institutional, state and national trends over the past five years. The new ranking shows that U-M, like most other U.S. institutions, has experienced a drop in the overall share of all articles published in these top journals since 2012, the first year the Nature Index compiled its findings.
In all, contributions to the Nature Index from researchers across the state of Michigan declined 10 percent between 2012 and 2016—though this was a smaller decline than that seen in most other states. Only five states experienced a growth in their share of journal articles in top journals during that time.
In 2016, U.S.-based researchers contributed more than 25,800 articles to the journals tracked by Nature—1,200 fewer than in 2012. On the whole, the U.S. accounts for a declining percentage of all science articles in the world, both in terms of individual articles and of number of authors on articles. China's contributions have risen at about the same pace as the decline in U.S. contribution. However, U.S.-based scientists still account for more than twice as many top-tier papers as China-based scientists.
In the Nature Index report on the U.S., analysts attribute these declines to constraints on U.S. research funding. They show that federal investment in research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product has declined since the 1960s, with a sharp decline since 2010.
"Barring an influx of funds, science and the economy will continue to suffer," they wrote.
U-M President Mark Schlissel is leading a Biosciences Initiative with the goal of creating globally leading research programs in the biosciences, focused on solving critical problems. A key element of the initiative will be the hiring of 30 tenure-track faculty positions over the next five years and a one-time investment of $150 million.
Another commentator writing for the Nature Index describes the efforts of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science, based at U-M's Institute for Social Research. It is working to build a platform that can track the impact of research universities on science, industry and the workforce using a method called UMETRICS (Universities: Measuring the Impact of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science).
The Nature Index editors also cite a recent research paper by a U-M team that examined biomedical science research output by a range of countries, as measured by papers in six top journals. The team, led by Bishr Omary Chief Scientific Officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center, showed that teams based entirely in the U.S. published 44 percent fewer papers in these journals in 2015 compared with 2000.
The new Nature analysis confirms this effect, finding that the contribution of U.S. researchers to all life sciences journals has declined since 2013—so has the U.S. contribution of papers in the physical sciences and chemistry. Only earth and environmental sciences have stayed about the same.