Highly Cited Researchers 2021: University of New South Wales & Van Andel Institute – transcript

Ideas to Innovation


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

David Pendlebury: Hello, Joan.

Joan: Professor Nicholas Fisk, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Enterprise at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Hello, Nicholas.

Nicholas Fisk: Hi there, Joan.

Joan: Dr. Peter Jones, Chief Scientific Officer at Van Andel Institute. Hello, Peter.

Peter Jones: Hello. Thanks for having me.

Joan: Welcome one and all David, Professor Fisk, Dr. Jones, it’s great to have you with me today. Now, before we get onto our main topic of the importance of Highly Cited Researchers to institutions, I would love to hear you tell us just a bit more about yourself, your areas of work, and where you’re based. David Pendlebury, can we start with you?

David: Certainly. I’m based in Oregon, and the field of research in which I’m engaged is a quantitative evaluation of the scientific and the scholarly literature. Clarivate is involved in obtaining and indexing the specialty literature in various fields to accelerate discovery and to enable innovation. That’s the academic literature, it also is the patent literature, all kinds of information on drug development and licensing, and intellectual property in general.

We have a large database called the Web of Science in which we index approximately 2 million scientific and scholarly articles a year. We index not only the information on the publications themselves, each article but also the citations from one on paper to another. It’s a citation index meant to help researchers find the information they need. However, we can use it to track activity in research, not only in terms of output but also in terms of influence or impact as reflected in those citations.

Joan: Thank you. David, thank you very much indeed. Professor Fisk, over to you.

Prof. Frisk: Joan, I have an admission. Sadly, I am not a highly cited researcher.

Joan: [laughs]

Prof Frisk: I’ve got a reasonable track record in research. I’m a clinical scientist, so that was in fetal and placental disorders. I trained here in Australia where I am at the moment, but spent a couple of decades at Imperial College in London where I practiced as an obstetrician, but grew over that time to a view that there was far more mileage in curing the disease through research than the patient through clinical work and that perhaps explains my rather odd mix of clinical and laboratory research.

Then moved back here to Australia to build and run a research institute, spent a six-year gig as the dean of medicine and health. Then moved here about five and a half years ago to the University of New South Wales in Sydney in Australia. Now, Australian universities are pretty large on a global scale. We’ve got to say, 60,000 students and a pretty comprehensive footprint in research. For instance, I think we’ve been listed equal first for four years on the trot now, for being ranked in the most number of subjects in the ARWU, the Shanghai Ranking.

Now for me, deputy vice-chancellor or vice president, they use different names around the world, of research is the best job in the whole sector. You get to interact with the brightest people, the most progressive companies, and the hottest areas of research, whether it’s hydrogen fuel cells, quantum computing, cancer immunology, or cube sets. My job is essentially about nurturing, resourcing, and stimulating our people, and then standing back and watching our researchers get on with it and succeed.

Joan: Oh, that sounds just fantastic. It’s like, “Ooh, light that touchpaper and watch the genius burst into flame.” Dr. Jones, how about you?

Dr. Jones: Hi. I grew up in Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe and moved to the US many years ago to the University of Southern California, where I was the director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center there for almost 20 years. I came to the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids in Michigan eight years ago with a wonderful opportunity to transform an institute with a very solid financial support into a top-ranked scientific organization.

My area of expertise is in epigenetics. I’ve been working in epigenetics for more than 40 years. What we’ve done here at the institute is set up a world-class and world-famous, I would say, epigenetics force. That’s where I am and I’m very interested to participate in this conference.

Joan: Well, thank you all of you for giving us some background. Now, what I’m excited to talk about today is Highly Cited Researchers. This year’s list has just come out and as I said earlier, it names 6,600 individual researchers whose work has been exceptionally highly cited by their peers. David, what is the significance of this recognition, and how do you, at the Institute for Scientific Information, even begin to create such a list?

David: Yes, it is a challenge. The number researchers of worldwide has been estimated at some 7 to 8 million. Of course, the people that engage in the kind of research of Dr. Jones and Professor Fisk are a much smaller group, actively engaged in research day-to-day, in contrast, to say, engineers. It’s still a very large group of people and the question comes up, how do you distinguish the activity of these people, such a large group?

Traditionally in research, the gold standard is peer review, where researchers judge the work of each other whether it’s for promotions or grants et cetera. We take a different approach, but it’s a complementary approach, by looking at the literature, looking at what’s published, and looking at what researchers cite. That’s a mark of influence and it’s sometimes described as repayments of intellectual debts. The people that have the most credits are, in some case, the richest, and they’re very influential within the group community.

Citation analysis is one way of trying to identify people who have had influence and impact on their peers. The Highly Cited Researcher project looks at papers published over the last decade and, as you said, Joan, it identifies papers that rank in the top 1% for their field and year of publication. Field by field, we try to identify those who have published the largest number of these influential, highly-cited papers.

Joan: It’s a very interesting one, isn’t it? Because you start to think, “How long is a piece of string? How do you measure this? How do you know when you’re finished?”

David: We have some parameters for each field based upon the population of the researchers. Some fields are very large. Clinical medicine is the largest field that we look at. Others are very, very small, astronomy and astrophysics and mathematics, for instance. It’s normalized to the population of the field.

Joan: Sure. Yes, I can see that. Interesting. Professor Fisk, I understand that the University of New South Wales is home to 36 of the Highly Cited Researchers on this year’s list. What does it mean to your institution to be the home of Highly Cited Researchers? Can you explain why this is something that you celebrate?

Prof. Fisk: Sure. It means a hell of a lot to us, actually.

David: Yes, I can imagine.

Prof. Fisk: At the individual level, Highly Cited Researchers, HCRs, these are the rock stars of research, the crème de la crème amongst our scientists. Whether social or more hardcore in STEM, everyone wants to work with these people and around these people. At the institutional level, it sends off a bit of a glow as well. It’s worth 20% of the most hardcore of the global university rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the Shanghai-based one. It’s interesting how we got in there, and it was because HCRs are one of the more robust indicators.

You said, yes, we’ve gone to 36, that’s 34 individual people, 2 of them are amongst the 202 in the world that are doubly highly cited. We’re very pleased with this and we’ve now moved up to be equal 23rd in the world amongst the universities with Highly Cited Researchers. We definitely celebrate that, but I do acknowledge that it sounds a tenfold rise in its six years that we’ve achieved that. It’s not quite that much because Clarivate in 2018 very rightly corrected the slight problem they had with promiscuous researchers crossing fields by adding the cross-field category, which we welcome. That accounts for about 40% or so roughly of that rise, but we’re still going up hugely. Yes, we love to celebrate this.

Joan: It’s fantastic. I was going to say to you, what does an HCR look like? Do they have that rock star glow about them? Do they wear platform shoes and sequins?

Prof. Fisk: They look just like ordinary academics. In fact, some of them don’t even know they’ve got there. You need to tell them about it and bring them into that world, but now everyone in our institution knows what an HCR is, and they know who they are. We celebrate and publicize it.

Joan: Absolutely fabulous, indeed. Dr. Jones, Van Andel Institute is home to five Highly Cited Researchers this year, which when you consider that these researchers are 1 in 1000 in the global researcher population, is very much something to celebrate. Can you tell us what that means to your institution?

Dr. Jones: Oh boy, it means a lot. 15%. We’re very small, we have 35 investigators here, and having five of them on the list really makes me feel very, very good because it means–

Joan: That is amazing.

Dr. Jones: [laughs] In fact, you better come up with a new number, which is the percentage of faculty per HCRs.

Joan: Wow, I’m just looking back, one in seven, I think it’s just phenomenal.

Dr. Jones: Yes, it is. It’s important for me because when I came here, there wasn’t anyone, and now this has happened. I’ve just shown this to External Scientific Advisory Board, they understand it. We have a board meeting at the institute coming up on Monday. Of course, this will be my first slide, pictures of these people. It’s incredibly important because I think you’ve adjusted well. I think it’s much better than an h-index, for example, and other ways of measuring citations. I think this is much better. Means a lot to us, makes me feel good.

Joan: Absolutely. That sense of achievement, we’ve just discussed this idea of celebration, that must really pervade your entire institution.

Dr. Jones: It most certainly does.

Joan: Can I ask, why do you think your institution attracts researchers of this caliber? What makes it stand out? If I can maybe put that to you, Professor Fisk?

Prof. Fisk: I’ll come back to the actual question, but I think for us, the main thing is our whole university tenure strategy with a broad focus on academic excellence, social engagement, and global impact. The Highly Cited Researchers has helped us rise in the aggregate rankings of global universities. I think we’ve gone up 26 places now in five years to be equal 50th in the world.

Perhaps, I could just challenge the premise of the question. You should have asked, what is it that attracts researchers here? Some people have the concept that you just buy in Highly Cited Researchers. I would stress that that’s a highly risky strategy and unlikely to work. You’re going to make a slight difference in the short term, but they’re expensive and they won’t stay.

At UNSW Sydney more than two-thirds of our Highly Cited Researchers are organic. In that five, six-year period I’m talking about, most of ours are homegrown, and we are incredibly proud of that. That reflects a much longer-run approach to encouraging research excellence, to encouraging great infrastructure which we centralize, and a high-quality publishing culture.

I would just comment that every year some go up, some go down. It’s not quite snakes and ladders because Clarivate does it over a 10 or 11-year window, but you do have to look after your researchers who are highly-cited, put a bit of effort into retention, because once they know they’re highly-cited, the price goes up and there are predatory institutions out there that try and recruit them. I think the best approach is to grow your own.

Joan: Yes, and then hang on to them, as you say, so other institutions don’t poach them.

Prof. Fisk: Exactly.

Joan: Yes, indeed. Dr. Jones, how about Van Andel? Just thinking of what Professor Fisk has just said, what would you say either attracts a world-class researcher, or indeed, how do you go about growing that excellence?

Dr. Jones: First of all, I have to say that maybe only one of ours is homegrown because the institute has only just had its 25th anniversary. Why this was so fantastic for me is I’ve recruited several of these people, and I didn’t know about this. I know now that I recruited the right people. [laughs] It’s a verification that I had it right, it makes me feel very good.

I think, with an institute where we are in Grand Rapids in Michigan, which although it’s the second biggest city in the state after Detroit, most people have never heard of it, and the institute is fairly young. This is really important to us that we can show that we can recruit amongst the world’s best here to this institute. This will help us in the future. You’ll be quite sure that every new recruit we go after, we’ll be showing these people.

Joan: Yes, absolutely. David Pendlebury, back to you. It seems that you’ve been involved in this exercise of identifying Highly Cited Researchers for quite some time. What trends do we see in the movement of Highly Cited Researchers around the world and overtime? How is it different now from when you first started?

David: I’ll touch on a few points. One, the nature of the research, more and more interdisciplinary. I think that’s especially important in meeting what Professor Fisk mentioned, which is the assumption that universities will now contribute to societal issues more and more, societal issues of importance, and not just as academic institutions. That’s one.

The second point is geographic. We have certainly seen in our data over time an increase in researchers from Asia so it’s not just a matter of European and researchers in the Americas. Of course, that’s exemplified by the rise of China, but Australia has done particularly well in the last few years, moving from 4% of our Highly Cited Researchers up to 5%. In fact, China is gaining share from other countries. Relatively speaking, they’re losing their percentage of Highly Cited Researchers, and that’s true for the US. Australia has beaten the trends in the shadow of China and that’s very good news for the country. The last I would say is gender. I’m noticing more and more women scientists being identified as Highly Cited Researchers.

Joan: If you had to pinpoint why, what would you suggest?

David: With regard to gender?

Joan: Yes.

David: Well, I think that it’s just a progression. I remember in the ’80s and ’90s how rare it was to find a woman scientist as head of department or at a university. It began to change, to my perception, in the ’90s. Now, we have more and more senior researchers running their own labs, who are women who have been emerging as a larger and larger share of the scientist or the scholarly population in the last 20 and 25 years. Of course, they’re represented in terms of highly-cited papers.

Joan: Absolutely. That’s obviously going to continue in that positive trend, isn’t it?

David: Yes, it is.

Joan: It is fascinating. Now, obviously, there is such incredible research going on around the world, not just by Highly Cited Researchers, but by everyone involved in the research ecosystem. Dr. Jones, how would you say your institution builds an environment of support that enables all your researchers to flourish?

Dr. Jones: Well, we have a unique model here because we have a very substantial endowment which supports the institute. What we do is we cover the costs of PI’s salaries, et cetera and at the same time, we encourage them to get research grants from the National Institutes of Health. That combination that we have has really, really helped us a lot in terms of recruiting people of this caliber. Now, we also are embarking on a program to include and to increase the number of underrepresented minorities on our faculty and women as well. I would love to wake up this time next year and see one of our female faculty on that list.

Joan: Well, yes. It certainly could happen, couldn’t it?

Dr. Jones: I hope so.

Joan: Professor Fisk, how does the University of New South Wales help create a culture of flourishing for your researchers? I know you touched on that in an earlier point.

Prof. Fisk: Culture, culture, culture. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. As we mentioned, we celebrate and reward outstanding performance. We have an annual event, we laud our HCRs. Everyone knows who they are. At the culture end, it’s really about pushing high-quality publication. We do that at the top-end, get everyone to aim high. We have masterclasses for our early, middle-career researchers. We assist them with journal selection.

So often people send their half-baked manuscript off to the top journal, rejected. It gets better for a middle-ranked journal and then they eventually get it published as a low journal. We get them to do it all upfront. At the same time, at the low end, if we can, we try and tell them to, if you’ll forgive the words, to stop publishing crap. We know that 15% of the publications, 15%, are never cited, not even your mother will cite it. That’s got to go.

We backed that up really with a ready use of metrics. Now, people say which metrics? All of them, including HCPs. We have an internal system that just lists them all year on year for everyone, and we make it transparent. Every academic in the university can look up anyone else’s, and that promotes interdisciplinary research. You could even go and look up how many citations the president’s got this year.

The final point, I’d like to make, and it’s one that David touched on. The HCR is really a hardcore robust index of citations, fantastic citations, but it is really just another form of impact. HCR status, yes, it’s sufficient, but it’s not really a necessary condition for a stellar researcher. If you’re publishing something that’s not widely read, 18th-century German verbs or diseases of the toenail, you’re never going to be a highly cited researcher. They can contribute to the balanced scorecard assessments we’ll do in other ways, but HCRs are right up there.

Joan: This is going slightly off pieced and just listening to you all, this is truly fascinating. What would you suggest is a kind of average timeframe for a paper to be presented and then for somebody to then be wearing the crown, as it were having been highly cited? It doesn’t have to be an exact timeframe, but you know when you just think my goodness. What you were just saying there, Professor Fisk about the whole culture of celebrating and rewarding, it sounds like a really fabulous place to work, to be totally supported, and to have the luxury of knowing that you have time to really do your job well. Is there anybody ever cracking the whip saying, “Look, you’ve taken 14 years over this. It’s time you actually presented something?”

Prof. Fisk: Look, I think HCR status is really long-run. It’s 10 years of publications measured over 11 years of citations. Most of the people are very senior, h-index is up around a century or even higher. You do get young researchers who’ve had a series of very successful post-docs, but sometimes they don’t always keep it. I think it was Peter who mentioned about recruiting people outside to inside. Obviously, everyone’s recruited into the institution at some stage. The trick, if you can, is to recruit people before they get to highly-cited researcher status, and that’s not that easy to do.

Joan: No indeed. Any thoughts from you David on this?

David: Well, in fact, when we devise the selection process for Highly Cited Researchers, we did not want to merely focus on senior scientists. It’s possible for mid-career and even junior scientists to show up as Highly Cited Researchers if they have published over this decade period a sufficient number of highly-cited papers. If we wanted to just recognize senior scientists, we may have used total citations. Of course, the more years you publish, the more publications you have, the more citations you’ll generally have. That kind of a method would identify mostly senior researchers. Counting highly-cited papers, normalized for their field and their year of publication within a recent period, gives us a contemporary view that includes not only senior scientists but younger scientists as well.

Joan: Excellent.

Dr. Jones: Could I interject?

Joan: Absolutely.

Dr. Jones: One of the interesting things with our five, one of them is actually not a faculty member. He’s a structural biologist who’s like a staff scientist here, who, because of his very special ability to be able to understand structural biology and help people with our new cryo-electro microscope, actually shown up. This is a well-deserved, but he’s not a faculty member. He’s a staff scientist who, by collaborating and being an essential component of many of our structural biologists’ publications has really risen to this rank. I think that’s really fantastic to show you that you don’t necessarily have to be a PI or principal investigator to actually reach the status.

Joan: Indeed. Excellent and very encouraging, isn’t it?

Dr. Jones: It is. Yes.

Joan: Now, I have a final question, and this is for all of you. What do you envision for the future of research at each of your institutions? Peter, let’s start with you.

Dr. Jones: Well, our institution is now at a stage where it can move to the next level. Because we can show that we have five people in this caliber, I think our recruitment is going to be much easier over the future. We also have a unique strategy of what we call catalytic research, in which we collaborate with institutes all over the world, including, for example, the Garvan Institute in Sydney, and actually provide financial resources and organizational structures which can make this work. What we see ourselves is being as a major hub for translational research.

My biggest concern at the moment is I’m very concerned with the increased scrutiny that we have to go through in terms of competition with other countries and declaring all of our support on grants and so on. I think that can potentially hold us up. Generally speaking, I’m very excited about the future. Actually, I should say grateful to you for doing this, allowing us to independent-check on the quality of who we have and who we might recruit in the future.

Joan: Well, thank you for that. Professor Fisk, what are your thoughts?

Prof. Fisk: I think that the future is bright, although it is a tad uncertain at the moment as we recover from the pandemic, and that’s just not an institutional issue, that’s a national issue in all our countries. I predict there’ll be a continued trend to interdisciplinary team-based, expensive toy mission-based research around society’s big-ticket questions. I think we will see an increased focus on impact return on investment, commercial returns, et cetera.

If I had to judge for Australia and our own institution, it’s going to be proportionate to resourcing. Remember the American bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why did he rob banks. Well, he said, “That’s where the money is.” Locally for us, of course, at the moment, the money is all going into medicine and health, it’s almost twice the national investment at research council level as in non-medicine. It’s going into defense, sort of reflecting geopolitical realities and government focus, and the third one is industry as university-industry partnerships are really beginning to gather steam, and assuming a greater role in funding university research.

Joan: Excellent. I’ve made a note of all of that. David, any final thoughts from you?

David: Well, from about 30,000 feet, I would say one of the most important developments over the last two and three decades is the globalization of research. We touched on that or we hinted at that in many of the comments today. The importance of collaboration, not only domestically, but internationally that’s enabled through technology. I expect more international collaboration that is very healthy for science, brings different people with different experiences together, new ideas. That’s the upside but there’s also a challenging side to it, which is greater competition. Greater competition for funding, for talent, so that is something in prospect as well.

Joan: Well, thank you all so very, very much. Is there anything that any of you would to add to our discussion today?

Prof. Frisk: I think we could just thank Clarivate for really having such a constant and reliable benchmark of citation excellence. It’s the only one that is in the global university rankings so it’s got real street cred, and we look forward to decades more of success with it.

David: Yes, I thank you very much for that. We are very dedicated to making the data as accurate as possible. We put a lot of work into curating the data so that people can rely on its meaning, its validity.

Joan: Excellent. Well, it just remains for me to thank you all so very much. Thank you, David Pendlebury.

David: Thank you, Joan.

Joan: Professor Nicholas Fisk, thank you.

Prof. Frisk: Thanks, Joan.

Joan: Dr. Peter Jones, thank you.

Dr. Jones: Thank you very much, Joan.

Joan: It’s been a wonderful conversation about Highly Cited Researchers from an institutional standpoint. Now, based on our conversation today, it’s 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.

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