The material fact: Rice leads the world

Earns top spot in international ranking of materials science institutions

Rice University has the right stuff for many, according to a British education journal.

Times Higher Education (THE), a United Kingdom publication for professionals in education and research, has declared Rice No. 1 in the world in materials science research, based on the number of citations per paper between January 1999 and October 2009.

What may be most extraordinary is that when THE last ranked research institutions for materials science two years ago, Rice wasn’t even on the list.

“It’s incredible recognition of Rice’s strategic investment into materials science, particularly in nanoscience, and a great accolade for the fantastic work of our faculty,” said James Coleman, Rice’s vice provost for research.

The survey measures the impact of institutions (including universities, national labs and corporations) via Thomson Reuters’ Essential Science Indicators database of original research and articles published in journals. Because the ranking is based on the number of citations per paper, “it turns up some smaller producers with outsized influence,” according to THE.

Thomson Reuters and THE narrowed a list of 63,100 institutions down to 71 credited with more than 10,000 citations over 10 years. With 31.36 citations per paper, Rice easily beat Harvard, which published many more papers but ranked second at 27.63. Others in the top 10, in order, were the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Washington, IBM (considered an international institution), the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, MIT, the University of Groningen and Princeton University.

Materials research at Rice ranges across disciplines, said Enrique Barrera, professor and department chair of mechanical engineering and materials science, who noted the university’s collaborative nature might obscure the value of contributions that come from outside his department. Advances in recent years cover health, energy, aerospace and electronics.

“It’s very good news for Rice,” Barrera said of the ranking. “We’re not as well-known as we should be for materials because of the way we’re set up, but when people see the publications that get produced in the materials journals, particularly the citations that go along with them, we get noticed.”

Sallie Keller, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, noted the “amazing pace” at which Rice researchers are advancing. “The broad base of materials scientists cuts across nearly all departments in science and engineering, and that leads to fantastic collaborations and an awesome portfolio,” she said

“Rice has an impressive record and a superb spectrum of researchers who continue to bring novel approaches at the interface of engineering, chemistry, physics and biology to this field,” added Daniel Carson, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. “This recognition reflects the many years of hard work and creativity that personify Rice University.”

Nanotechnology has been a particular strength for Rice in the years since the Nobel Prize-winning discovery 25 years ago of the buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball, the soccer-ball shaped carbon molecule that kicked off the nano revolution. The university is celebrating that event in 2010 with the Year of Nano, a series of events that includes a major symposium in October.

The late Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, Rice’s University Professor Emeritus and Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences, won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Sir Harold Kroto, then of the University of Sussex, for their breakthrough.

“Rice made nanoscience a focal area and hired people in nanoscience and nanomaterials across the campus,” Coleman said of the university’s long-running leadership position in nano research. “So a lot of this is the fruit of Rick Smalley’s vision.”

In a similar ranking released late last year, THE named James Tour, Rice’s Chao Professor of Chemistry and a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science, among the world’s top 10 chemists with an average 62.76 citations per paper.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.