For the third year running KU Leuven tops Reuters ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries. A Dutch-speaking school based in Belgium's Flanders region KU Leuven was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V and continually produces a high volume of influential inventions. Patents filed by KU scientists are frequently cited by other researchers in academia and in private industry. That’s one of the key criteria in Reuters’ ranking, which was compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics, and is based on proprietary data and analysis of patent filings and research paper citations.
Overall, the most elite ranks of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities have held steady from last year, with the UK’s Imperial College London (#2) and University of Cambridge (#3) holding onto their top spots for the third straight year. Other leading institutions simply traded a few spaces, like the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (#4, up one), University of Erlangen Nuremberg (#5, up one), and the Technical University of Munich (#6, down two). The remainder of the universities in the top 10 moved up from the teens: The University of Manchester (#7, up nine), University of Munich (#8, up four), Technical University of Denmark (#9, up five), and ETH Zurich (#10, up one).
But even though the usual suspects continue to dominate Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, political uncertainty may be causing a big swing in where innovation happens. The trend is most clear if you consider the sum of changes in rank for each country’s institutions: The 23 German universities on this year’s list cumulatively rose 23 spots, more than any other country. Switzerland was second, with five universities up a total of 8 spots. And in contrast, the list’s 21 UK-based universities dropped a cumulative 35 spots.
Why is this shift occurring? The United Kingdom’s “Brexit” from the European Union is almost a year away, but Europe’s scientific community may already be leaving the UK in favor of research institutions on the continent. A February 2018 study published by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education reports that many German academics view Brexit as an "advantage," and hope to use it to attract UK researchers to German universities; in turn, UK academics report that their own postdocs aren't seeking positions in the UK and are looking at the EU or United States instead. And as Brexit actually unfolds, it could get worse: A November 2017 study performed by the School of International Futures for the UK's Royal Society describes a possible post-secession United Kingdom where universities compete for a shrinking pool of skilled workers, projects that used to receive EU funding wither, researchers receive fewer invites to join consortia and attend conferences, and overseas collaboration is limited. Similarly, EU-based businesses that fund research at universities may prefer to keep their investments within the region in order to avoid the tax and regulatory headaches of working with post-Brexit UK institutions.
The government of Germany has also established itself as notably pro-science, increasing federal research budgets and encouraging growth in emerging industries such as renewable energy. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel actually holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry, and worked as a research scientist before she entered politics.) According to a 2017 analysis published in the science journal “Nature,” researchers are "flocking to the country," in part due to the country's €4.6-billion "Excellence Initiative," which has helped to attract at least 4,000 foreign scientists to Germany since 2005. And in 2016, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG), the country's main funding agency, allocated a record €2.9 billion in grants, posting a success rate for individual grant proposals higher than comparable UK rates.
This year’s university ranking also shows how smaller countries can have an outsized presence in the world of innovation. Belgium has seven schools on the list, but with a population of only 11 million people, it can boast more top 100 innovative universities per capita than any other country in Europe. On the same per capita basis, the second most innovative country on the list is Switzerland, followed by Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland. And some large countries underperform despite bigger populations and economies. Russia is Europe’s most populous country and boasts the region’s fifth largest economy, yet none of its universities count among the top 100.
To compile the ranking of Europe’s most innovative universities, Clarivate Analytics (formerly the Intellectual Property & Science business of Thomson Reuters) began by identifying more than 600 global organizations that published the most articles in academic journals, including educational institutions, nonprofit charities, and government-funded institutions. That list was reduced to institutions that filed at least 50 patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization in the period between 2011 and 2016. Then they evaluated each candidate on 10 different metrics, focusing on academic papers (which indicate basic research) and patent filings (which point to an institution’s ability to apply research and commercialize its discoveries). Finally, they trimmed the list so that it only included European universities, and then ranked them based on their performance.
Of course, the relative ranking of any university does not provide a complete picture of whether its researchers are doing important, innovative work. Since the ranking measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook particularly innovative departments or programs: a university might rank low for overall innovation but still operate one of the world’s most innovative oncology research centers, for instance. And it’s important to remember that whether a university ranks at the top or the bottom of the list, it’s still within the top 100 on the continent: All of these universities produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.