U Climbs Global Ranking in Natural Sciences Research

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Photo: Andrew Yelken/UMN

When it comes to research in the natural sciences, the University of Minnesota is climbing the global rankings.

The U of M ranked 33rd in the world among academic institutions, up from 41st the previous year, in the Nature Index 2019 Annual Tables. The ranking highlights the institutions and countries that dominated research in the life sciences, chemistry, physical sciences, and environmental sciences in 2018. Among public Big 10 institutions, only the University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranked higher.

Each year, the Nature group of academic journals creates this index of research institutions based on the number of studies their researchers have published in a collection of high-quality academic journals chosen by two panels of independent scientists.

This year’s Nature Index includes a list of the U of M’s most influential research publications, as determined by altmetrics—a collection of measurements that show how often journal articles are discussed and used around the world. Among these studies were research suggesting that female heart attack patients are more likely to survive when treated by female physicians and that communities of microbes in immigrants’ guts change dramatically when they arrive in the US.

Chris Cramer, PhD, the U’s vice president for research, said continued state support has helped fuel the rise in research output. Bonding projects, for example, have helped fund the updated research spaces and cutting-edge instrumentation essential to keeping researchers at the forefronts of their fields. Meanwhile, the MnDRIVE initiative, a recurring state investment that pairs University expertise with Minnesota’s key and emerging industries, has allowed researchers to pursue solutions to large problems in areas such as brain conditions and robotics.

“Using MnDRIVE funds, the colleges have hired faculty and seeded new research initiatives,” Cramer said. “That’s helped us to further establish our position in these fields and ramp up our research.”

Another effort that has spurred growth in the research enterprise is the Grand Challenges Research Initiative, which aims to bring experts together from across disciplines to take on complex societal issues in a more comprehensive way. Grand Challenges works to jumpstart new collaborations, engage external partners, and help faculty compete for resources to sustain larger research efforts. Examples of the research areas include equitable access to health care and sustainable land use.

Forming these collaborations, making initial progress, and gathering preliminary results, Cramer said, has helped U researchers bring in larger grants from federal agencies.

“We recognized that the really knotty, thorny problems that face the world, sometimes called ‘Grand Challenge’ problems, are not the kind of thing that any one researcher solves alone,” he said. “It takes big, multidisciplinary teams.”

While the Nature Index is limited to the physical and life sciences, Cramer noted the rise in rankings is emblematic of burgeoning research activity across a much wider range of disciplines at the U.