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

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09 November 2011

Research and education programs in the basic sciences at Penn State are among the top programs in the United States, according to a comprehensive National Research Council study, updated in the spring of 2011, 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 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 the Verne M. Willaman 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 in 1995," Larson said. The new National Research Council study, which ranks graduate programs, is widely viewed as a gauge of faculty quality and research productivity -- both of which contribute to the quality of undergraduate programs.

The report positions individual doctoral programs within a range of quality as gauged by two different ranking methods -- called "R" and "S" -- which assign different levels of importance to 20 measures of quality. Each program receives a ranking range, rather than a simple rank, to reflect the range of statistical confidence in the results. "If you look across the basic sciences, a lot of the universities that are very good have strengths in one area or another, but it's rare to have the kind of strengths across the basic sciences that we've developed," Larson said.

The new NRC gauges of quality can be analyzed in a number of ways. One conservative approach of equal weighting of the National Research Council's R and S methodologies shows that the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State rose from #21 in the 1995 report to #4 in the new 2011 report. The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State rose from #45 to #29, and the Department of Chemistry rose from being tied for the #18 spot to #12.

Meanwhile, the Department of Mathematics rose from #37 to #7, and the Department of Physics rose from #55 to #13. The Department of Statistics rose from #19 to #9. The Department of Biology, which was not directly ranked in the earlier study, is now ranked at #15. Another equally conservative approach, based on the distance from the ideal ranking of the center of each R and S range, yields slightly different, yet similar, results.

Applying similar analyses to the National Research Council ranges for all top universities in the study reveals that there is a group of six elite universities in the basic sciences: Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, Caltech, Stanford, and MIT, and that, by any conservative analysis, Penn State Science is very near the top, or at the top, of the next tier of the top universities nationwide. "What's worked for us is to build an environment where excellent people - faculty and students - see opportunities. And, part of that environment has to do with building connections across the disciplines and Penn State has done that extremely well," 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," said Henry C. Foley, Penn State's Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. "This new report confirms what we already know from many other measures -- that Penn State has continued to strive for and to achieve scholarly and research excellence during the years since the 1995 National Research Council rankings were published. In that time, we have gone from what was a very good research university to a truly great research university."

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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.

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