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Is The UW Really The Number 1 Public University in The World?

Thanks for sending this. It is more or less consistent with my own impression that the UW is declining. I felt the #4 ranking was likely due to some artifact. The criticism, moreover, is consistent with my subjective POV that most of the achievements are in the past and that our ranking is going to down as those events are further away. The criticism is likely valid as Reuters does this sort of thing .. that is how it sells its stuff! However, even if you use other rankings ... more subjective .. systems, the UW is pretty much unique among public universities in being among the top of all world universities but in a state where we are the only significant research university. The closest comparables are Michigan and Wisconsin but both have more research universities. I suspect that ten years from now, the uW will be much lower on all lists .. watch for the UC campuses and Univ. Texas campuses. I think it would be good if someone here were to look critically at the Reuters' rating. This is now complex because of the union issue. If AAUP were to run this, I suspect it would come across as an atatck on the UW Excellence crew. On Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 4:24 PM, Robert Wood wrote: Hi Steve, What do you make of this?

IS THIS WHY MICHAEL YOUNG LEFT?   This questions raised by this article from Gerald Barnett’s blog are consistent with my own impression that our school is on the decline.                                                 The UW is highly ranked in most studies based on more subjective criteria but #4 would put it above outstanding places like Yale, Princeton, UCLA, Toronto, Cal Tech, UT Dallas, .. places that seem to me to be rising while the UW’s reputation is based on work done in the past.        I expect the UW’s rank to go down as  most of the achievements are in the past.  One measure of this that we are electing very few members to the National Academy of Sciences.  Another piece of depressing evidence is the exit if all but a small amount of biotech from the much touted South Lake Union effort.   Without Amazon, SLU would be pretty much the domain of non profits.                         So I suspect this is why Michael Young left.  Young came here touted for his ability to get the private sector to invest in the much less prestigious University of Utah.  I suspect he felt he could so much better at a higher ranked school in a tech mecca.  The promise of the UW for the future is mixed. certainly not what I think Dr. Young sees at Texas A&M.  Washington  State seems to see the UW as a factory to produce diplomas.  As a result the level of private donations here is simply far below  that of our major competitors. 

 

The Most Innovative Public University in the World  Gerald Barnett

Thomson Reuters named UW the “most innovative public university in the world.” A reader might think that the ranking methodology includes the number of startups, since UW’s press release includes the following:

And in fiscal year 2014, 18 new startups based on UW research technologies were launched – a record for the university, bringing its 10-year total to 103 technology startups.

Not to be outdone, UW’s computer science department released their own story on the matter, citing UW’s research income and “record high commercialization activity” as apparent factors. The Thomson Reuter’s story was also picked up dutifully by Katherine Long at the Seattle Times and spread around the region. Proudiferousness abounding.

The articles got me bothered because I went through the 18 companies UW claimed to have launched in fiscal year 2014 (July 2013 to June 2014) and found 1 company that met the criteria for being launched in the fiscal year. The rest were launched in fiscal year 2013 (9), or were launched much earlier (2012 or earlier) (4), were launched earlier and at other universities (between 2001 and 2012) (4). UW is playing fast and loose with the facts–no, actually, they are simply making things up. It appears if they sniff at a small company, they call it a “launch” in the year that they sniff. Even AUTM’s criteria for when to count a company is when the company is formed, but only if the company is formed expressly to take a license to new technology from the university, not when the license agreement is actually signed (which, given the sluggish pace of university negotiations, can take months). The reality is, UW’s output of companies is modest–previously, for a few years, around 10 per year, and lately, fewer at far greater expense, and of those, mostly shell companies that have no operations, no employees, no new products, no innovation. Call it “vanity innovation”–companies created to pad numbers reported to uncritical reporters and gullible legislators, to oohs and ahhs.

Here is the Reuters write up of UW. Here is the ranking. Notice that the score of the 4th university (1576) and the score of the 10th university (1515) differ only by 61 points, or about 4%. I wondered how much the UW fraud regarding startups affected UW’s ranking. The answer is: not at all, apparently. That’s because the rankings appear to be nothing more than a promotional stunt by Thomson Reuters to advertise their patent indexing and information services, such as Web of Science and Derwent Innovations Index.

According to Thomson Reuters, the criteria for “innovation” involves only patents, patent citations, and articles published. That is, there’s nothing–not research funding, not STEM graduates, not even startups–in the Reuters ranking methodology. It’s just a big click-bait to Thomson Reuters information products, and those products in turn are as good as the garbage “in” divided by the lack of capability to use these products. The Thomson Reuters pitch is to use the patent information as a proxy for “innovation”–but there is precious little that recommends doing so. But the University of Washington took the bait and even threw in a quote from the interim UW president. Talk about gullible.

To be ranked, a university had to have “filed 70 or more patents.” It is not clear at all what this means. One files patent applications. One obtains patents. But university faculty may file patent applications on their own–many do, and some file more patent applications outside their institutions than within. Only in the past decade as university administrators have become more grasping, more let us say–ahem–fascist have the universities shown up as owners of patents. Otherwise, the owners of patents issued to faculty (and student) inventors are the inventors themselves, companies, research foundations, or other invention management organizations. The Thomson Reuters rankings don’t appear to consider such things. Innovation, for Thomson Reuters, is a matter of institutional ownership of patents and a competition to be noticed for them. That’s a pretty sketchy version of innovation.

Here are the Thomson Reuters criteria, along with my pesky comments. The upshot is, what utter crap–but nicely laid out, and if you didn’t know anything about patents, then in fine Dunning-Kreuger fashion, you’d be impressed.

Patent Volume–patents (meaning patent applications) filed, “an indication of research output that has potential commercial value.” Does that include provisional patent applications in the US? Caltech uses a neat approach to provisional applications, filing omnibus provisional applications, each with a number of inventions, and then sorting out which to convert to full utility applications later, one at a time. Anyway, what on earth does it mean to register a patent with WIPO?

Patent Success–ratio of filings to issued patents. Why should the ratio have anything to do with innovation? An aggressive filing strategy will file more applications and abandon them just as aggressively. A foolish, wasteful strategy will be to file on most everything, and then attempt to get patents to issue regardless of whether or not they will have commercial potential–that is, the strategy many universities use. Unlicensed patents *block* innovation. The fact that a university has a huge patent portfolio has nothing to do with innovation–but it may well mean a university is anti-innovation.

Global Patents–percentage of filings in US, EU, and Japanese patent offices. What a strange measure! What does seeking patents in just these three offices say about innovation? Not much. Other countries don’t count. Mexican universities file applications in Mexico and one of the US or EU. Does that make them “less innovative”? Hardly. Unlicensed patents in foreign jurisdictions block innovation in those foreign countries, too. What joy! it’s not enough to stifle innovation in one’s own country. One long-time patent attorney who had done work for universities confided to me that while US universities filed a bunch of PCT applications, he had never seen a one of the national patents ever commercialized. Just for show, and for the joy of delaying innovation internationally.

Patent Citations–a citation be a patent by other patents. Citations of this sort are used in industry as a measure of the centrality of a given patent, but citations do not show that the cited patent is useful. These citations are not simply from the patent examiner. Patent applicants have a duty to cite relevant prior art in their possession, and often it is a useful strategy to cite patents to the examiner for review, so that later those same patents will not be raised as prior art. Citations may be used to distinguish a new invention from past work, rather than to build on the past work. This measure is tricky also because a university may obtain a bunch of patents in an area that cite its other patents as prior art. If you have the money to file patent applications, you have the money to cite your previous issued patents, too. Patent citations has little to do with innovation and a lot to do with patent filing strategies and the subject matter of one’s filings. In a crowded area of university patenting, there will be more citations. For universities jostling to find patent space–say, as they did in nanotechnology–there will be plenty of citations and nothing at all to indicate that patenting is improving the climate for “commercial R&D.”

Patent Citation Impact–half-weighted with Percent of Patents Cited, immediately below. But what is it? The web turns up almost nothing to explain how this “impact” is determined. I expect it is a nifty service within the Thomson Reuters universe of patent analysis products. We’ll just assume it is magically prescient.

Percent of Patents Cited–apparently another version of “patent citations.” It’s not at all clear how this measure differs from “Patent Citations.” Just adds another half-number to the total score.

Patent to Article Citation Impact–how often patents cite articles. This one appears difficult to pull off. One would have to check to see that the authors of the articles are academics, and that what they are reporting is basic research. More challenging, one would have to check to see what university each author was at–often co-authors are split among universities (and other research organizations). But all the worser still, a patent must teach the art of the invention so one with ordinary skill can practice it. Because industry often does not publish so frequently, academic articles are useful to establish the prior art. Those articles are chosen not for their innovation but for their availability. Authors from major universities can be expected to be cited more than authors from other universities. So a patent can cite a standard reference that happens to be authored by someone–a review article for instance. That’s not innovation–it’s just the opportunity to get published afforded by the status a university position may have to offer.

Industry Article Citation Impact–how often industry-authored articles cite university-authored articles. Reuters thinks this suggests “potential future economic impact” of joint research. How utterly strange! The suggestion of future economic impact is not innovation. It’s not even future innovation or potential innovation. Industry might cite academic articles as a useful indicator of research activity, but the academic articles may *follow* the developments in industry rather than lead them. This is often the case once the federal government decides to throw money at university research in an area that has opened up for exploration. There will be tons of academic articles, and industry may well cite them, but there is nothing to indicate that the academic articles arise from basic research, that this research came before industry inventive work, or even that the articles being cited are by those that made the key discoveries (which may have been published without filing patent applications) or are from the institutions where those discoveries have been made. In short, this is only a measure of how often industry folks cite academic folks, and nothing more.

Percent of Industry Collaborative Articles–percentage of articles co-authored by university and industry authors. Big problem. Companies show up with stuff for university folks to play with, and invite university folks to consult on company projects. That doesn’t mean that the flow of “innovation” is from university to company. A better measure of collaborative research activity is to look at university funding from industry, the number and size of subcontracts from universities to companies, the number of SBIR/STTR collaborations, and the number, size, and duration of university-industry consortia.

Total Web of Science Papers. Total number of published articles. A bigger university likely will have more publications. How is this a measure of innovation, though?

So from this examination of the methodology, the basic idea is what university shows up best in Thomson Reuters patent and article information products. That’s the proxy for “innovation.” Trash talk, really.

Now if one wants to talk innovation–that is, introduced change in established order–whether new product, new practice, new business method, new organizational structure–and then look to see the source of that change, we have other work to do. Even if we accept with Steven Johnson and Kevin Ashton that much innovation is incremental, bits of adjacent possible discovered by hard work and the luck of the prepared mind, there are other–and I argue better–proxies that might indicate how a university serves as a host for innovation-causing activity. Consider these:

Number of faculty/staff leaving for jobs with companies or elected to public office
Absence of a patent policy claiming institutional ownership of inventions
Frequency and size of university research subcontracts to industry
Ratio of licensed patents to unlicensed patents
Ratio of owned inventions to licensed inventions reporting a first commercial sale
Number of companies with more than 10 employees and a commercial product after five years (10 years for biotech, sigh)
Percentage of graduate students placed in startups before or by graduation
Number of open source/open architecture distributions
Frequency of articles that are denounced by incumbent academics or industry leaders
Number of university originating proposals adopted by government agencies as policy guidance
Number of “Low Road” buildings available to creative folks (for which see below)
I know–these are not the proxies that are easy to find. But then, innovation is an elusive thing, not easily located to a university or company or government anyway. Innovation can be on the street, can be in some garages, emerges from the untrained and non-credentialed, outside the sight of the elite, the wealthy, the powerful. Innovation can be led by pirates and gangs, by scoff-laws and stoners, by folks making mistakes, by crazy-ass elected officials, by mechanics and hobbyists, by collectors and accidental tourists. Vannevar Bush followed a path that combined industry folk, academic folk, and gadgeteers–folk who could make things–and he got these folk out of their universities and companies to do it. Basic research explored with curiosity. Development–innovative stuff–happened outside the institutions, and brokered with those institutions. Introduced change to the established order. Bush’s vision got washed over. Remnants include the National Science Foundation, the idea that faculty request release time from their universities to accept federal funds, and the thought that publication should include freedom to practice what’s published. Beyond that, something else–innovative in its own repressive way–has emerged instead.

The idea that research conducted by highly credentialed individuals owing their discoveries to institutional employers will result in “innovation” is way cool but a dismal failure. To get at just how basic research might develop stuff that lays the foundations for new commercial activity or better quality of life (however we might measure such self-satisfaction or envy) is darned difficult. A book like George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral points out how Princeton was both the home to von Neumann and an antagonist to building devices in the basement of Fine Hall. Was Princeton “innovative”? Or was it actually von Neumann, or was it the people that watched out for him? Stewart Brand argues in “Nobody Cares What You Do in There”: The Low Road” (in Steven Johnson’s The Innovator’s Cookbook) that “Low Road” buildings–the old, unwanted buildings that function as garages are where much of the good work gets done:

Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover. Most of the world’s work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things (28).

Consider John Boyd, the Georgia Tech engineer and best durn fighter pilot in the Air Force at one point–who led the design of the F-16 and the A-10, among other planes–planes the Air Force conventional wisdom fought, but pilots loved. Is Georgia Tech more innovative because it taught Col. Boyd engineering? Just how far does institutional credit of this sort go? I argue that innovation is rarely the result of universities as institutions–it is the people that work in and around the university that produce the innovation. Counting patents owned by a university and fussing about characteristics of those patents as a proxy for innovation has little to nothing to do with innovation. The most innovative university in the world doesn’t exist.

More about UW Research by  Gerald Barnett


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