By David Ewalt
(Reuters) - The news out of South Korea is dominated by political instability, but inside the country, strong and stable relationships between academia and industry continue to drive economic growth and technological innovation. That’s the conclusion of Reuters’ second annual ranking of the Asia Pacific region’s Most Innovative Universities, a list that identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science and invent new technologies.
The most innovative university in the region, for the second year running, is South Korea’s KAIST. Formerly known as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, it is the nation’s oldest research-oriented science and engineering university, with campuses in Daejeon, Seoul and Busan.
KAIST earned its first-place rank, in part, by producing a high volume of influential inventions. Its researchers submit more patents than 74 out of the 75 top-ranked universities in the region, and outside researchers frequently cite KAIST inventions in their own patents and research papers. Those are key criteria in Reuters ranking of Asia Pacific’s Most Innovative Universities, which was compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics, and is based on proprietary data and analysis of indicators including patent filings and research paper citations.
Recent KAIST research highlights include the development of a “parasite” robot that controls the movements of a living host: The device is mounted onto the shell of a turtle, and uses a combination of flashing lights and food rewards to direct the animal. The research could lead to hybrid animal-robot systems that would allow access to environments that would otherwise be difficult to reach on their own. In 2015 a university team collaborated with Rainbow Co, a company spun out of KAIST's Humanoid Robot Research Center, to win the U.S. Department of Defense's DARPA Robotics Challenge with an adaptable humanoid robot, DRC-HUBO.
The second most innovative university in the Asia Pacific region is also based in South Korea. Seoul National University was founded in 1946 as the country’s first national university, and now operates 16 colleges, one graduate school and 10 professional schools. In 2016 SNU received more than KRW 76 billion (about $68 million) in research funding from external industry, approximately 15 percent of its total funding.
South Korean universities typically have close relationships with industry. Fourth-place Pohang University of Science & Technology, or POSTECH, was actually founded by the South Korean steel company POSCO in 1986, and its 400-acre campus is located only a few minutes away from POSCO headquarters. POSTECH ranks first among all universities on the list in terms of the percentage of research articles it produces that include a co-author from industry, and the number of times its research papers are cited by articles originating in the private sector.
Overall, South Korean universities fill four of the top five spots on the ranking and eight of the top 20. There are 22 South Korean universities among the top 75, far more than you’d expect from a relatively small nation. Korea’s population is just under 51 million, so that’s one top-ranked university per 2.3 million people. In contrast, China has the most universities on the list – 25 between Hong Kong and the mainland – but it also has a massive population of more than 1.37 billion people, or one top-ranked university per 54.9 million people. (Japan has 19 ranked universities, Australia has five, Singapore has two, and New Zealand and India each have one.)
Some nations underperform on the ranking because of the way they organize their university systems. Despite boasting the world’s second-largest population (more than 1.26 billion) and one of its largest economies, only one Indian university appears in the top 75, The Indian Institutes of Technology (#71). IIT is a network of 23 universities which centralizes its patent administration, so it's not always possible to identify which constituent university was responsible for what research. As a result, Reuters ranked the entire system as opposed to individual universities. World-class campuses like IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay may have ranked much higher on the list if they weren’t grouped in with smaller and newer institutes like IIT Tirupati and IIT Palakkad.
And some countries are missing from the list entirely. There are no ranked universities in Indonesia, which contains Asia’s third largest population. Nor are there any universities in Pakistan or Bangladesh, the region’s fourth- and fifth-most populous countries, or any universities in the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the region’s largest economies.
To compile the 2017 ranking of the Asia Pacific region’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 2010 and 2015. 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 universities in East Asia, South Asia, and Oceania, and then ranked them based on their performance.
This is the second consecutive year that Clarivate and Reuters have collaborated to rank Asia’s Most Innovative Universities. Five universities that ranked in the top 75 last year slipped off the list in 2017: Japan’s Nihon University, the Indian Institute of Science – Bangalore, Putra University Malaysia, the University of South Australia, and Malaysia’s University of Malaya. These drop offs were all supplanted by fast-growing institutions in China and South Korea: the China University of Petroleum (#45), the University of Ulsan (#69), the University of Electronic Science & Technology of China (#70), Yeungnam University (#73), and Tongji University (#75).
The returning university that made the biggest move on the list was the University of Hong Kong, which climbed 26 spots from #56 to #30. That change is largely attributable to adjustments in Clarivate Analytics’ methodology: The university’s 2016 ranking did not account for patents that originated at HKU but were assigned to its commercialization arm, Versitech Limited, and the addition of those patents improves the university’s overall performance. Other big movers include China’s Huazhong University of Science & Technology (up 24 spots to #33) and the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (up 13 spots to #34). Japan's Okayama University (down 14 spots to #52) and Waseda University (down 18 to #66) made the biggest moves in the opposite direction. Overall, the ranking remained largely stable year over year, with eight of 2016’s top 10 universities returning to the top 10, and 18 of the top 20.
Of course, the relative ranking of any university does not provide a complete picture of the scope of its researchers’ 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 computer science laboratories, 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 75 in the region: All of these universities produce original research, create useful technology and stimulate the global economy.
To see the full methodology, visit http://reut.rs/2qTnoBq.
(Editing by Arlyn Gajilan and Alessandra Rafferty)