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Jeremy Harmon, Deseret News archives
A technician assembles a brain chip at Cyberkinetics in Research Park at the University of Utah Wednesday, April 14, 2004.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's two research universities rank among the top 100 institutions in some subjects from a list of 20,000 institutions worldwide in a new research index.

Globally, the U.S. continues to "comfortably" outrank other countries in the breadth and depth of scientific research, producing more than triple the number of articles in top scientific journals as its nearest competitor, China, the index states.

The index, released this month by Nature Publishing Group, ranks institutions based on how many articles were published in 68 peer-review journals identified by scientists as being the leading voices in chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, life sciences and physical sciences.

Mark McLellan, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at Utah State University, said the index follows a model used by most institutions to evaluate faculty members based on how they conduct their work and share it with the scientific community.

"It's a unique way to rank institutions," McLellan said. "It's probably the most traditional way we rank individuals."

Thomas Parks, vice president for research at the University of Utah, said the index gives a "shorthand" method of measuring an institution's productivity, producing results consistent with those of other ranking systems.

"The real bottom line for people in Utah is just to be reassured that the state university they can send their kids to here at a relatively low cost is a world-ranked competitive institution," Parks said. "It's right here in town for anybody that wants it."

The U. ranked 77th for articles published in life science journals in 2013, and it ranked 90th overall out of the 20,000 institutions worldwide. Out of 500 institutions in the U.S., the U. ranked 45th.

Utah State University ranked 73rd globally in earth and environmental sciences, and 169th among the top 500 U.S. institutions.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences topped the global list of overall research production, followed by Harvard University. Twelve of the top 20 institutions are in the U.S.

"I think there are very few industries in the world anymore where the U.S. is as dominant as it is in research universities," Parks said.

While the index gives an indication of global standing for thousands of institutions, McLellan said, prestige is hardly an indicator of the impact of research. As a land grant university, USU conducts a large portion of its research to benefit local communities, publishing articles in journals monitored by agencies within the state.

"Those types of publications might not be what someone else rates as the most important, and yet, they deliver the biggest impact," McLellan said. "Sometimes it's important for the communication of your work to be aimed more at the local citizen or the state operations as opposed to the grand knowledge of the discipline. There's a balance."

Directly linked to an institution's output of research are funding opportunities. Some grants are intended to further research with local significance, but others are dedicated to research that is "pushing the limits of knowledge," McLellan said.

Either way, an institution's ability to procure funding is determined in part by the quantity and notoriety of the research conducted by faculty, according to Parks.

"Research that has to be funded with external money is a very competitive business," he said. "We can only have competitive research programs in a lot of areas of science and engineering if we can hire and keep very strong faculty."

North America ranks highest in research productivity, but it ranks the lowest in international collaboration, according to the index report. On the other hand, institutions in Africa collaborated internationally about four times as often due to fewer researchers and scare resources.

Parks said collaboration between U.S. institutions and developed countries is strong, and collaboration with developing countries is expected to increase over time as their resources expand.

"Obviously, there's brilliant people in every country," he said.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen