Weekly science policy roundup
September 23, 2010
Here it is, your weekly science policy roundup, in no particular order:
- Canada has two universities in the THE list of the world’s top 50 schools for Engineering, released today: UofT comes in at a very respectable 13th and UBC at 38th. Conspicuously absent from the list are McGill and University of Waterloo, which were ranked 29th and 39th best engineering schools in the world respectively, by the rival QS rankings (UofT (14th) and UBC (30th) also made the QS top 50). The US has 21 of the top 50 spots, including all top five schools. California Institute of Technology finished first, slightly edging out MIT and Stanford.
- A helpful note from a reader (thanks Nilima) reminded me that there is yet another set of world university rankings (is it time yet to publish a ranking of the rankings?). The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This list, initially compiled to find the global standing of Chinese universities, is now also part of the global rank-fest. Eight Canadian universities make top 200. Again, McMaster elbows its way into the G5, ranking ahead of both UofA and UdeM as the 88th ranked school in the world. By subject, ARWU places only UofT in the top 50 of Science or Engineering, with McGill and UBC both faring better in Life Sciences and Medicine.
- An interesting note about the ARWU rankings: while American universities dominate all categories, there are at least a fair number of representatives in the top 50 from around the world. When ranked by social sciences, however, US universities take 43 of the top 50 spots, with only the UK (4), Canada (2), and Israel (in 46th spot) also represented. I think this is highly significant for a number of reasons. First, does this reflect the fact that other countries are competing internationally by strictly focusing on science and technology to the exclusion of the social sciences? Is this a losing strategy? Is American economic prominence and achievement not due, in no small measure, to the strength of its social science universities like Harvard, UChicago, and Stanford (the top three)? Further, is it possible strong social sciences programs at these universities strengthen the other subject areas – ie. is there a synergistic effect at universities where excellence is pursued in multiple disciplines? The very top schools in science and engineering still placed in the top ten in social sciences. The top-ranking national technical institutes still don’t manage to outrank the best comprehensive universities. Finally and generally, why are there so few international schools in the top tier of social sciences? (ps. UBC (30th) and McMaster (40th) were the two Canadian schools.)
- More than a third of Canadian university grads between 25 and 29 years old are underemployed, according to data from The Economist, more than any country but Spain, and roughly ten percent more than the OECD average.
- The UK is wringing its hands about imminent science cuts and the inevitable and dreaded ‘brain drain’ (note to the innovation types: can we innovate a new phrase to replace ‘brain drain’? “sci-guy bye-bye”? “the tech wreck”? anything?). Get ready for more and more of these stories from all over. With governments around the world suddenly realizing they have massive, persistent deficits, research funding is going to come under attack everywhere.
- A really interesting look behind the scenes at how individual research funding decisions are made. The story is a common one – there are too many excellent research projects to fund. Good science and a strong track record are required to get you in the door, but aren’t sufficient to guarantee funding – far from it. As the chairman of the American Cancer Society says about deciding between equally worthy grants: “it’s subtle things”. Those things – including good ideas poorly explained, improperly prepared applications (often hair-splitting details), omission of essential data, and poor writing – are often an afterthought to researchers focused on exciting experimental details. These things are also all easily corrected by a dedicated grant writer or editor, often for a surprisingly low fee (ed. note: the author admits possible conflict of interest in this last statement).
- On a personal note – this blog was featured, along with the excellent blog The Black Hole and the always informative Science Canada in this month’s University Affairs magazine, in a story about science policy blogging in Canada. It’s a little weird being the subject of a piece instead of the author…
- Finally, for readers in Montreal: The undergraduate and graduate student societies at McGill have organized a “Science and Policy Exchange” on October 7, 1-7 pm. Speakers will include Richard Bruno (CEO of Beyond If, and highly involved in venture funding and tech transfer in Quebec), Marc Garneau (MP former president of Cdn Space Agency), Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party), and Philippe Couillard (former QC health minister). I’m really encouraged by the initiative of the student societies, and hope others across the country will follow their lead. You can get more information and register here.