Highly Cited Researchers 2021: National University of Singapore and University of the Witwatersrand – transcript

Ideas to Innovation


Dr. Robin Drennan: If you can free enough people to do their good work, then they go and do it. You don’t actually ever have to encourage researchers to pursue their interest, they’re driven by their own curiosity.

Professor Liu Bin: I think looking to the future, I see so much promise and potential for our university, and definitely we will continue to excel in the research excellence. We’re also very passionate about innovation and translation, solving really big problems, and make impact on our everyday life.

David Pendlebury: The activity of measuring science, of naming highly cited researchers is not an end in itself but a tool that can supplement what the research community rightly does for itself, which is its own peer review.

Presenter: The Ideas to Innovation podcast from Clarivate.

Joan Walker: Hello, I’m Joan Walker, and welcome to the Ideas to Innovation podcast. In this series, we talk to the people who live and breathe the process of turning ideas into innovation. The smartphones and technologies that we depend on, the medicines that we rely on, the electricity that powers our day-to-day life, they were all once ideas before becoming inventions, inventions that have changed our lives for the better. The people who have these ideas are tasked with bringing them to life. Join the conversation with experts and industry leaders to discuss innovation at its core.

Clarivate recently unveiled its annual list of highly cited researchers, the who’s who of the world’s influential scientists and social scientists. The list from the Institute for Scientific Information recognizes some 6,600 researchers for demonstrating significant influence among their peers, as evidenced by the production of multiple highly cited papers that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and year, as indexed in the Web of Science over the last decade.

An outstanding faculty is the lifeblood of every notable research institution, and this year highly cited researchers are based at more than 1,300 institutions all over the world. In this episode, we speak to representatives from some of these universities, hospitals, research institutions, laboratories, and government organizations about how they excel in a competitive global environment, supporting their highly cited researchers in a way that encourages collaboration, facilitates career growth, and accelerates highly innovative research.

With me today are David Pendlebury, Head of Research Analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information. Hello, David.

David: Hello, Joan.

Joan: Professor Liu Bin, Vice President of Research and Technology at the National University of Singapore. Hello, Professor Bin.

Liu: Hello.

Joan: Hello, there. Dr. Robin Drennan, Director of Research and Innovation at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa.

Robin: Hello, Joan, and to those that are listening to us.

Joan: Welcome, one and all, David, Professor Bin, Dr. Drennan, it’s so good to have you with me today. Now, before we get onto our main topic of importance of highly cited researchers to institutions, I would really love to hear you tell us a bit more about yourself, your area of work, and where you’re based. David Pendlebury, let’s start with you.

David: Thank you, Joan. I work for Clarivate, from Oregon in the Western United States and my field of research is called scientometrics. It’s a quantitative analysis of research activity and influence based upon academic publications, generally, journal articles, also proceedings work, sometimes books. We index the activity by counting publications for nations, for institutions, and for people, and we measure influence or impact by counting the citations, that is the references in those publications from one research paper to another.

Citations represent repayments of intellectual debts. By counting the citations, we are able to find which nations, which institutions, and which people have the greatest influence in the form of these credits.

Joan: Thank you. That is very clear. Now, Professor Bin, over to you.

Liu: Hi, Joan, I’m currently based in Singapore and the Vice President of the NUS Research and Technology. I am chemist by training, but I’m doing biomedical research with a strong focus in organic nanomaterials for not only biomedical but also a little bit of the energy applications. I also chair the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. At the same time, looking after the NUS sustainability research. I’m really a leading example of how NUS is able to nurture its researchers to do multidisciplinary research. Thank you.

Joan: Thank you for that. That certainly is multidisciplinary, isn’t it? As you say, you trained as a chemist, and now, you have, what we would say, fingers in lots of pies.

Liu: Yes, indeed. I switch fields from time to time and also look after research disciplines in different ways. Current focus is the sustainability and climate change defense that is to look after the overall university portfolio. It’s very exciting to do research at the National University of Singapore.

Joan: Thank you for that. Dr. Drennan, how about you?

Robin: Thanks, Joan. My name is Rob Drennan, and I work at Wits University, a hundred-year-old university in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’m also a chemist. I did a PhD in chemistry, studying pyrotechnic reactions, but for at least 20 years now, I’ve been in the game of research management. I hate that term actually. It’s much more research stewardship. My role here at Wits University is to encourage and support and facilitate research across the university.

Also, indeed multidisciplinary. One day I’ll be speaking to a particle physicist and the next day to a fine artist about the creation of creative research. I thoroughly enjoy my job because it’s really rewarding to see great researchers having the time and space to do what they’re good at, producing new knowledge and using it for impact. Innovation is research with impact. It’s great to be able to join you today, Joan.

Joan: I’m delighted you can join us. It’s very interesting, Robin, because I can hear just in your voice how much you are really enthused and fired by your work, your job. As you say, that idea of stewardship rather than management seems to be a warmer kind of response to what you’re doing.

Robin: Absolutely. In a university where academic freedom is cherished, it’s not about telling people what to do with their research, but it’s about encouraging and facilitating, and removing hurdles so that they can do what they do well. It’s just such a pleasure to see this coming together with the many citations that we heard about earlier.

Joan: Absolutely. Thanks to each of you for giving us some background. Now, what I’m excited to talk about today is highly cited researchers. As you know, this year’s list has just come out and it names 6,600 individual researchers whose work has been exceptionally highly cited by their peers. David, what is the significance of this recognition? How do you at the Institute for Scientific Information even begin to create such a list?

David: Thank you, Joan. It is very challenging because the world population of researchers is so vast. This approach, which is top-down, looking at the literature and screening it or filtering it for these highly cited papers, gives us the opportunity to find individuals who, as you said, produced multiple highly cited papers over the last decade. Of course, we have to make some adjustments for how many people are in each field for the average rate of publication in different fields and the citation rates in different fields. We have to normalize the data depending upon the area in which a person works.

As mentioned, our approach then is quantitative. It’s one way of trying to find impact or influence in research, but it’s only one way. Another way is traditional peer review, where researchers recommend one another, either for appointments, for promotions, for grants, for prizes. We think it’s complimentary. Rather than being just a scoring system and a game of winners and losers, I would like to think that it contributes to the stewardship of promoting excellence in research by helping people like our guests find those people who are beginning to make an impact and give them the resources to continue.

Joan: From what you’ve just said it’s a really very supportive collaborative way of working isn’t it? Yes, it’s competitive because I’m sure people do want their name on the list but there is that sense of team spirit.

David: Absolutely, more and more research is intensely collaborative. That makes a challenge of crediting individuals a little bit more complicated but the way that we do this analysis we do give credit to all authors on a paper.

Joan: Absolutely as you say there will be lots of people, it’s not just down to an individual. Now Professor Bin, I understand that the National University of Singapore is home to 32 of the highly cited researchers on this year’s list. Can you tell us what does it mean to your institution to be the home of highly cited researchers and why is this something you celebrate?

Liu: Thank you Joan. The National University of Singapore is very proud to be the whole home of so many highly cited researchers. This really showcase our research excellence and particularly we are actually a research incentive and innovation driven university. Definitely we’re looking forward to nurture more of highly cited researchers in the years to come. This recognition is also testament to the talents of our research community and particularly the resources that has been really invested from the universities our partners and the government.

We don’t really particularly celebrate the highly cited researchers but we did every year release the news to showcase the excellent research they have been doing, and with the hope that this will inspire more researchers actually will focus on the highly influential, highly impactful research. We’re really excited about every year we see so many researchers on the list and definitely from all perspective we will do our best to grow more talents in this area. Thank you.

Joan: Thank you for that. Now Dr. Drennan, Wits is home to one highly cited researcher this year, which when you consider that these researchers are one in 1,000 in the global researcher population is very much something to celebrate. Can you tell us what this means to your institution?

Robin: Thanks Joan. Unfortunately, it’s true that if you come from the Southern tip of the African continent it can be very easy to overlook the research contribution made by our academics, our researchers. When you get this type of recognition that 1% of the field has cited these articles it’s an affirmation that our research is interesting meaningful and impactful. That’s a really special thing to celebrate.

The particular candidate that is on the list this year works in the broad field of health science. It’s so important that Africa is taking its responsibility seriously for developing solutions for health care here on the continent. It’s important that we contribute to the world’s body of knowledge but also get recognized for those contributions. This is truly an affirmation as we’ve heard already it’s a quantitative affirmation, and that’s of great value because it’s really difficult to argue against the quantitative analysis.

Of course, the peer review analysis is also important and the publication are all peer reviewed. We select very carefully the journals that we use for good quality peer review. It’s really just an affirmation that we are contributing to the world knowledge and taking our responsibility really seriously for coming up with solutions for the problems that we face. Thanks, Joan.

Joan: No, thank you and it’s an interesting one isn’t it? Because you do feel that if I use the word success you know what I mean is that this recognition success breeds success. Using that idea why do you think your institution attracts researchers at this caliber? What makes it stand out? If I can put that question to you Professor Bin.

Liu: Thank you, Joan. I think National University of Singapore is very unique and strong. It has been one of the best universities in Asia for many, many years. We’re the only comprehensive university in Singapore with the 116 year of history. We have a very vibrant dynamic ecosystem with really strong and broad national and international collaborations. In this country and together with the National University of Singapore we also built very strong talent recruitment system.

Like in our universities we have Presidential Fellowship and Presidential Young Professorship and in the country we have the National Research Foundation Fellowship. All these schemes actually provide tremendous opportunities and funding resources in order to attract the best candidates across the globe to come to Singapore and which has been proved to be extremely successful. We’re also creating excellent research environment.

The country also invests a lot of money, research funding in creating something called the research centers of excellence just to focus on highly impactful research. These are the different factors that are really attracted to [unintelligible 00:15:41] talents of different nationalities and different age from young to junior and senior to be attracted to Singapore. That’s why we create such a wonderful system to attract the best talents and grow together and to really be able to create a lot of success including the highly cited researchers.

Joan: From what you’ve just said it makes it a hugely attractive place to be to study to research.

Liu: Yes, and the country is also very interesting in the way that it really integrates the best of the eastern and western in terms of the culture, diversity and inclusiveness. It’s really a great place to be, I would say.

Jay: Thank you for that. Now Dr. Drennan how about Wits? What would you say attracts the world class researcher to your institution?

Robin: Joan, there’s probably multiple responses that you could give to that question. The facilities that access to research subjects, funding, collaboration, working with partners. All of those things are very, very important. I’d also like to recognize as I said earlier our 100-year birthday which is coming up next year 2022. Across those 100 years of our establishment our university, Wits University has developed a record of quality research and a boldness to speak truth, even when it’s unpopular.

Clearly South Africa has had a quite a tortured history and through out of that time, Wits University has stood for truth, excellence, equality and social justice. That tradition of seeking quality and truth and understanding stands good stead and is a very powerful attractive for good quality academics who really want to be part of that environment and ecosystem and be able to make a difference through our knowledge, our peer review tested knowledge.

Joan: Thank you for that. David Pendlebury back to you. It seems that you’ve been involved in this exercise of identifying highly cited researchers for some time. What trends do we see in the movement of highly cited researchers around the world and over time? I wonder if you could identify how it’s different now from when you first started?

David: Indeed, I started in this strange field of measuring science in the 1980s. I would say that the largest change I’ve witnessed is the dramatic rise of research activity in Asia, and particularly, with China in the 21st century. It began in the early ‘90s with some force but has really picked up so that now by some measures China produces more scientific publications than the United States does. It depends on how you measure it.

The United States still has many more highly cited researchers and in aggregate more impact but China’s growth in activity but not only in activity but in elite researchers producing these highly cited papers, influential papers has really changed even over the last decade. We’ve seen China now capture about 15% of the highly cited researchers worldwide, but it’s not just China. Of course, Japan started a little earlier and was a mature research system, I would say, from the ‘70s on, but in addition to China, I certainly do have to point out a Singapore’s dramatic rise as well in the scientific world.

Since 2014 when we began to select highly cited researchers in the way we are doing it now based upon multiple highly cited papers in different fields, Singapore has increased threefold from half of 1% to 1.5%. When you consider the size of the research community in Singapore, that’s quite something. As a country, it ranks about 12th in the world, in the number of highly cited researchers about 90 now.

The other trend I’ve seen is the Global South, and how increasingly researchers in South Africa, in South America, and in Southeast Asia are more and more contributing to science, and individual countries are maturing and developing their own systems.

Joan: David, thank you for that. It’s fascinating. Obviously, there is so much incredible research going on around the world, not just by highly cited researchers, but by everyone involved in the research ecosystem.

David: Joan, may I add one, one thing?

Joan: Absolutely.

David: Professor Bin is too modest to say that she is a highly cited researcher and has been so for several years.

Joan: Oh, she is being very modest.

Liu: [laughs] I was on the list from 2014. That’s why I was so proud every year. Yes, I have to acknowledge that. Thank you very much.

Joan: Oh, congratulations. That is extraordinary. Thank you for alerting us to that, David. That’s excellent. Now, Dr. Drennan, if I can come to you how would you say your institution builds an environment of support that enables all your researchers to flourish? I know you’ve talked about your idea of stewardship rather than management but what would you add to that?

Robin: Again, there’s multiple responses to a question of building that environment they have many different inputs that one can make. I really think in the South African context, we put in a lot of effort into building the research management capacity. This capacity to steward research, and steward in the sense of looking after nurturing a precious resource, the precious resource being the talented academics that do the research.

By developing this profession of research management, we feel that it makes a huge contribution to creating the environment for good research. It’s much like a government. If a government wants to stimulate the economy, what did they do? they build a bridge over a river or a highway or put into a rapid rail. What happens? Economic development springs up around the stations or the ends of the bridge. It’s in the same sort of [unintelligible 00:22:41], that we put a lot of effort in creating the professionals that will support the research process.

These people are often researchers themselves, people who have PhDs, who’ve done some research, but find more rewarded in supporting others. It’s a deep understanding of the research process. How do you boost post-grad students and all the necessary juggling that what needs to do to get it a research project of the grant, the funding? The facilities, the students, they all have to come together. There’s a lot of juggling project management support that’s needed.

If you just call upon your academics or researchers to do that, it burns up their time, and then they don’t have time to think and read the literature and contemplate or come up with ideas. Many answers to the question, but that’s the one we’re pushing particularly hard. In our Southern African region, we have a Southern African Research Management Association and we have a professional recognition system in place that requires you to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and whatnot. This is all part of encouraging to raise the standard of this type of support. Thank you, Joan.

Joan: Thank you. It sounds like it’s a very practical approach, so giving time and space, as you say, so people can keep up to speed with latest literature. It’s that kind of thing of like racing to do your homework or your revision. I’m thinking that you’re always one step behind. If you’re creating that really nourishing environment where people can take their time, it feels so productive.

Robin: Absolutely. I think it has a real multiplier effect. If you can free enough people to do their good work, then they go and do it. You don’t actually ever have to encourage researchers to pursue their interests. They are driven by the own curiosity, and it’s just about creating the space for them to do that. We think this is the strategy that we are following. We think that it will yield good returns.

Joan: Professor Bin, how does the National University of Singapore help create a culture of flourishing for your researchers?

Liu: Thanks, Joan. Definitely, we spend a lot of time and energy to really build the culture and create a conducive environment for our researchers. Study [unintelligible 00:25:23] where we recruit our researchers, actually both young and senior, we actually have a great mentor and coaching scheme. We make sure that they will be able to adapt to the local system very quickly. The seniors will also pass a lot of experience to the junior in our, for example, grant systems and how to build international collaborations, et cetera.

University built research platforms, facilities so that everyone actually can assess to the state-of-the art facility in order to do the best research. We also have a lot of activities, workshops, seminars, in order to integrate our researchers, and particularly the integration between science, engineering, and social science for this group of people to come together, so that we’re able to solve much bigger problems as compared to what we can solve by individuals, such as like climate change and sustainability, even how to fight against COVID.

These are very complex problems that require a lot of people to come together. We really drive them to integrate them together to come up with the best solution. Meanwhile, we also emphasize a lot on the entrepreneurship. University has wonderful schemes, to really nurture our students, and also professors in translating their technology into practical applications into companies that will really benefit the society. We’re really create ecosystem that everybody is excited about and everybody is so passionate to do the best research and to benefit the society. Thank you.

Joan: Thank you. Now, can I just pick up on something you said right at the start there, Professor Bin, which was about the mentorship. Now what does that look like practically?

Liu: Oh, for example, let’s say every year actually, from time to time, we will recruit assistant professors or young researchers to the university. They don’t really have experience in grant writing, or even in teaching, or in handling relationships with the students, et cetera. If you let them grow by themselves, it takes much longer time for them to be able to understand and manage everything precisely.

If we do a partnership with a senior member in the department or in the faculty, the senior will be able to coach the junior hand-in-hand, be able to offer advice and suggestions, and coach them actually to grow faster, to pick up the pathways that are more effective. That’s one of the strategies that we have in building up this mental and partnership from the very beginning, when any young talents actually is recruited to the National University of Singapore.

Joan: Thank you for that. Very, very interesting. Now, a final question from me and this is to each of you. What do you envision for the future of research at your institution? Maybe we’ll start with you here, Professor Bin,

Liu: I think looking to the future, I see so much promise and potential for our university. Definitely we will continue to excel in the research excellence. At the same time, we’re also very passionate about innovation and translation. We really want our research excellence will be able to translate it in solving really big problems and make impact on our everyday life. We will continue to focus on creating, leaving picks of excellence and we will be very selective.

We’re not going to focus on everything and make them like average or good, but rather than we choose to focus on few research areas, for example, Smart Nation, sustainability, materials, and the biomedical healthcare are the four pillars that NUS is really focused a lot in order to bring the visibility and picks up the excellence even higher. We’re also very excited about our materials research.

Very recently, actually, we built the fifth Research Center of Excellence in NUS, which is the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials. We’re really integrating the machine-learning artificial intelligence to create smart materials, with functions that are pre-designed so that we can create whatever we want through the integration with different competence with the help of the machine learning and robotics that will really be able to conduct a large-scale production of whatever fascinated material that we desire to have. Which is very, very exciting, and we’re really looking forward to make a lot of breakthroughs with our colleagues.

Joan: Thank you for that. Thank you, Professor Bin. Over to you Dr. Drennan.

Robin: Looking into the future I see the quality of our research growing but also the impact and the take up. In about 2004, the South African government changed the funding model for public universities in the country. Since then the number of publications produced by South Africa has grown quite significantly. I don’t know if they’ve come up on David’s radar yet, but certainly in our context we’ve noticed the growth. It’s really not just about those publications. Clearly, they’re important but it’s really the impact [inaudible 00:30:59] take up.

We certainly going to be putting a lot of effort onto trying to encourage the research life cycle from the very early discovery research through translational research that impacts policy and practice through to innovation that can be commercialized, or even making social innovations, making society a better place to be in. Our focus is really on impact and take up and that’s what we are going to be encouraging. Now the issue or the problem I don’t know if it’s a problem but the thing that we have to grapple with, is that different people are skilled with different parts of that life cycle.

The effort will be on trying to put people together that can take an idea from concept through to the market. The challenge is to getting that handover, the relay race working really efficiently and really well and that’s takes a lot of effort, working closely with people and realizing that, yes, we all have limitations. We can’t do everything all by our self.

If I could also just jump in onto something else that Professor Bin was mentioning earlier about mentoring at Wits University, we have an early career development program. Really, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to teach young academics, young researchers, what we call the art and craft of research. We never focus on the disciplinary matters that they get from their normal training, but it’s the peripheral matters that are just as important as excellence in the discipline that helps people get up and going.

In the past people either sank or swim. Now we can’t afford that anymore. We have to move at great pace, and so we need to help people develop those skills rather than through osmosis or trial and error, but by targeted inventions, interventions, sorry. Mentorship is certainly one of those but there are others that can really help people get up to speed quickly. Thank you, Joan.

Joan: Thank you for that, and I love that how you just described that the art and craft of research, that is just lovely. Again, from what you’ve just said and what Professor Bin was saying, it feels like having somebody really guiding you through the tricky things like maybe applying for a grant or knowing where best to focus your attention and skills. Is that correct would you say?

Robin: Absolutely. You got it spot on me, but also for example, choosing the right journal to publish your working. My experience I published with my PhD supervisor, I believe the world was created with two journals in it of course, that’s so, so very wrong. Just strategically choosing the right journal for the right type of research getting the message out to the right type of people.

These are myriad of these peripheral matters that are very important, just how to present in an online conference. It’s different now, we have to grapple with the technology, how to get your message across quickly, succinctly, but in such a way that people want to work with you and grow your multidisciplinary team. All of those things are important today.

Joan: Thank you for that, Dr. Drennan. David any final thoughts from you on this issue?

David: The future, as I mentioned, we’re going to see more and more activity from Asia and the Global South, and not only in terms of publications but in terms of highly cited researchers. More and more people will join our list from those regions. There are nine highly cited researchers in South Africa now. I wouldn’t be surprised in a few years to see that number doubled. I would say, also, in the future we’ll see a turnover in the identity of highly cited researchers.

This is very important. It’s not the same people on the list year after year, senior people go off the list, they retire. Younger people come on the list. It’s important to stress that the methodology we use while we have confidence that it’s identifying people that are contributing in important way, in an influential way to science, it doesn’t to identify all the people. If someone is not identified as a highly cited researcher that does not mean that they are inferior to those that we do name.

Different methodologies, different focuses would bring other people into the light. Especially people who work in more applied areas engineering clinical practice in various ways. This is why it’s important to always see the activity of measuring science, of naming highly cited researchers as not an end in itself, but a tool that can supplement what the research community rightly does for itself, which is its own peer review. I would end with a cautionary note that the quantitative evaluation of research does not tell you everything.

Joan: No, absolutely, as you say. It’s a cautionary note but nevertheless we applaud all those who are highly cited researchers.

David: I do.

Joan: It just remains for me to thank you all so much for your conversational input today. David Pendlebury, thank you.

David: Thank you, Joan.

Joan: Highly cited researcher Professor Liu Bin, thank you.

Liu: Thank you, Joan. I’m so proud to be on the list.

Joan: Delighted to have you with us today, and Dr. Robin Drennan, thank you.

Robin: My pleasure to be part of it, it’s so great to talk to other people with brilliant ideas. Congratulations to Professor Bin, well done. It’s really an absolute, great accolade, well done.

Liu: Thank you.

Joan: I echo that. It’s been a wonderful conversation about highly cited researchers from an institutional standpoint. Thank you all. Now based on our conversation today is clear that these highly cited researchers are helping to extend the frontiers of knowledge in ways that make the world healthier, richer, more sustainable, and more secure. I think we can agree that it is increasingly important for institutions around the world to recognize and support this scientific elite especially as they look ahead to the research of the future.

Follow and listen to Ideas to Innovation, for engaging informative and inspirational content with insights you can use. Now available on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast directories. Share, like, review or join the conversation with your comments on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook by clicking on the share link. Thank you for joining us, until next time. I’m Joan Walker. Goodbye.

Presenter: The Ideas to Innovation podcast from Clarivate.

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