ScienceCast: Penn State’s NRC Rankings

ScienceCast: Penn State’s NRC Rankings

September 26, 2019 1 By Stanley Isaacs


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. By
any interpretation of this comprehensive study, Penn State now ranks among the best universities
in the basic sciences in the United States. “What I like very much about this new report
is the fact that it’s not purely reputational, that they looked at honest-to-goodness metrics
and tried to rank colleges and departments on the basis of verifiable numbers. And I
think it’s probably groundbreaking in the sense that it’s not purely reputational.”
During the years since the 1995 report was published, the core programs in all of the
seven academic departments in the college have risen dramatically in the new National
Research Council rankings. 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.”
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-ten elite universities nationwide.
“What I’m so excited about with the NRC rankings is… I think that knowledgeable people — first
prospective faculty, second prospective graduate students — will see these rankings and take
them very seriously. And I think the NRC rankings then really just raise the value of everything
that we’re doing here.” 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. “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.”