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Penn State Science is Among the Best in the United States, National Research Council Study Shows

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07 January 2011
Penn State's Graduate School Commencement, 2009

Credit: Annemarie Mountz, Penn State

This story contains information from a 2010 National Research Council (NRC) study that the NRC later updated and republished in the spring of 2011. To learn how Penn State Science programs rank in the updated study, click here.

Research and education programs in the basic sciences at Penn State are among the top programs in the United States, according to a comprehensive new National Research Council study titled "A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States." The study uses a broad range of measurements to rank the performance of over 5,000 graduate programs in 62 fields at 212 U.S. universities, including all of the major research universities. "By any interpretation of this comprehensive study, Penn State now ranks among the best universities in the basic sciences in the United States," said Daniel J. Larson, professor of physics and dean of the Penn State Eberly College of Science. "The core programs in all of the seven academic departments in the college -- Astronomy and Astrophysics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics -- have risen dramatically in the NRC rankings since it last published such a report 15 years ago," he said.

Penn State Plant Biology NRC rankings Penn State Plant Biology, an intercollege program, is tops in the nation in the new National Research Council rankings, as illustrated by this graph, in which the blue oval shows the performance range for Penn State Plant Biology at the highest-ranked position. The performance ranges for all the other 117 plant science programs ranked by the National Research Council are illustrated with green ovals. Image credit: David Hunter, Penn State.

The National Research Council study specifically ranks graduate programs, and it incorporates measures of student quality and success in those programs. It also is widely viewed as a review of faculty quality and research productivity -- both of which are very important for undergraduate programs as well. The report positions individual doctoral programs within a range of quality as gauged by two different ranking methods -- dubbed "R" and "S" rankings. The two ranking methods assigned different levels of importance to 20 characteristics, including the number of research publications per faculty member, the number of times a faculty member's publications have been cited in the research publications of other scientists, the percentage of faculty members whose research is supported by competitive grants, the number of Ph.D. graduates, and the median time to degree. Measures of faculty and student diversity and student support are also included. The report gives each program a ranking range, rather than a simple ranked list, to reflect the statistical confidence range in the results. "In a striking example, the report's ranking range for Penn State Plant Biology using the S ranking methodology is #1 to #3 among 116 doctoral-level plant-science programs nationwide. This narrow range places Penn State Plant Biology as tops in the nation, as compared with other high-ranking programs including the University of California at Berkeley (with a range from #1 to #6) and Cornell University (with a range from #1 to #8)," Larson said.

Simple rankings -- rather than ranges -- can be obtained from the National Research Council data, using the tools at <http://www.phds.org>, a website suggested by the National Academies Press. "A conservative approach of equal weighting of the National Research Council's R and S methodologies shows that our Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics rose from #21 in the 1995 NRC report to #5 in 2010, our Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology rose from #45 to #25, our Department of Chemistry rose from being tied for the #18 spot to #12, our Department of Mathematics rose from #37 to #8, our Department of Physics rose from #55 to #11, our Department of Statistics rose from #19 to #11, and our Department of Biology, not directly ranked in the 1995 study, comes out at #11," Larson said. "A simpler analysis based on the midpoints of the R and S ranges given in the National Research Council report produces very similar results," he added.

Some of the measurements used to rank graduate program performance are:
  • Publications per faculty member
  • Citations per publication
  • Percent faculty with grants
  • Awards per faculty member
  • Percent interdisciplinary faculty
  • Percent non-Asian minority faculty
  • Percent female faculty
  • Average GRE scores
  • Percent 1st-yr. students with full support
  • Percent 1st-yr. students with external funding
  • Percent non-Asian minority students
  • Percent female students
  • Percent international students
  • Average PhDs, 2002 to 2006
  • Average completion percentage
  • Median time to degree
  • Percent students with academic plans
  • Student work space
  • Student health insurance
  • Number of student activities offered

Applying similar analyses to the National Research Council ranges for all the top universities in the study reveals that there is a group of six elite universities in the basic sciences: Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, MIT, Caltech, and Stanford, and that this group is followed immediately by Penn State Science. "While we were well aware of substantial improvements in our programs, I was surprised to find that, no matter how I analyzed the relative positions of the best-ranked science programs in the nation, our college consistently ranks right at or near the top of the next-tier grouping and unambiguously is in the top ten nationwide," Larson said.

Penn State programs in other areas, particularly in the College of the Liberal Arts, made impressive gains in the National Research Council rankings as well. "Penn State's rising stature among U.S. and world universities is now officially recognized with the publication of the National Research Council study.," Henry C. Foley, Penn State's Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, said. "This new report confirms what we already know from many other measures, and that is that Penn State has continued to strive for and to achieve scholarly and research excellence over the last 15 years. In that time, we have gone from what was a very good university to a truly great university."

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Daniel J. Larson: 814-865-9591, djl18@psu.edu
Barbara Kennedy (PIO): 814-863-4682, science@psu.edu

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