THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Harvard, BU credited with providing more bang for the buck

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2011

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Harvard University and Boston University are among the top institutions in the nation when it comes to creating value from academic research, according to a new study. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology placed near the bottom of the list — but even the study’s author said that result could be misleading.

The vast majority of academic research in the United States is funded by the federal government, and there are few good measures of whether that money is well spent, said study author Jeffrey M. Litwin, an associate dean at George Brown College in Toronto.

“If I was writing the checks, I would want to know what I was getting for my money,’’ he said.

However, Litwin acknowledged that the study’s measure was not precise and should be only one of several factors used to determine academic productivity. He said the goal wasn’t to flag underperforming schools, but to start a conversation about whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

In his survey of 72 universities, which compared each institution’s levels of federal funding with the number of high-quality studies published there, some well-known schools fared well; others, very poorly. Private schools and universities with medical schools — like Harvard and BU — tended to perform well.

Schools with a focus on engineering, including MIT, often ended up near the bottom. That may have nothing to do with the productivity of MIT researchers, Litwin said, but rather, because there is less of a focus on publishing in engineering, or because much of the work is done for the military or corporations that may not want results made public.

Litwin presented his study late last month at the annual meeting in Toronto of the Association for Institutional Research.

As with any ranking, “you always feel good when you’re at the top and lousy when you’re at the bottom,’’ said BU president Robert A. Brown. “But you have to take these things with a grain of salt.’’

The Association of American Universities, Harvard, and MIT all declined to speak in detail about Litwin’s study, but all three said any single measure — and this one in particular — is overly simplistic.

“The proof is in the pudding when you look at how you get this rather strange listing,’’ said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the university association.

A Harvard spokesperson agreed with Litwin that the university may have done well in the rating on the strength of its medical school, which has an unusually strong emphasis on basic scientific research in a publication-oriented field.

MIT said it is meaningless to compare different types of research simply by looking at funding and number of publications. “There is an enormous difference in cost between different kinds of research,’’ Claude R. Canizares, associate provost and vice president for research, said in a statement. “Research in experimental science and engineering, for example, can be hundreds of times more expensive than research in the humanities or social sciences.’’

Litwin tried to account for some of those differences by comparing schools that had similar lines of research — and he said he was surprised to see how much some schools still differed.

Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh, for example, are comparable in terms of the percent of federal funding they spend on life sciences, engineering, and math. But they get vastly different amounts of funding per publication, with Duke receiving $81,600 and Pittsburgh, $61,740. Litwin said he does not know how to explain that difference, but thinks it deserves further investigation.

Brown and Toiv each said some kind of productivity measurement is important at a time of shrinking resources. Both cited a year-old effort by the National Science Foundation and the White House called STAR METRICS that is designed to do just that.

Litwin’s examination only considered studies published in major, peer-reviewed journals. He looked at 72 schools for which he had data available, including published studies compiled by Thomson Reuters. (Canizares, a physicist, noted that MIT was recently ranked number one among US universities by Thomson Reuters in terms of the impact of its recent publications.)

“Measuring the productivity of universities is important, especially in an era of increasing fiscal restraint,’’ Litwin said. Governments “will not continue to be able to fund these institutions on an ever-increasing basis.’’

Asked whether he had analyzed the productivity of schools in his home country of Canada, Litwin said he hopes to.

But, he acknowledged, he will need government funding to support the research.