We're Number Two

20 May 2004 // science

So I am working at a top US research university. How do I know? Because everyone around me says so. Not long after I arrive, I overhear this conversation.

"We're number two."

"I'm not sure about that."

"Well definitely in the top five"

"I can accept that but top two, no. Yes top five."

Well, I am glad to be at a top five place. But then I think a bit and realise that I don't know exactly what this place is the top of. Research institutes? Universities? Medical universities? I had this image of researchers swarming around the campus, like some kind of bee-surveyer, zapping random students with an instrument to measure top research potential. Perhaps they base the ranking on how many students they zap, with double the points if they zap faculty memebers.

So I think further on what might be the criteria. Is it based on research, or numbers of publications, amount of grants? Or perhaps one can measure that intangible of intangibles - prestige. After all, the conversation that spawned this conversation was entirely based on self-perception. Now I have to say at this point that I am working at a medical university even though I am doing basic science. Where, you might ask, does one put a basic research laboratory at a medical university? Easy, in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Nevertheless, I suspect that they were talking about medical university.

But then I think to myself, perhaps the first guy was right, and we really are number two. But if we are number two, then who's number one? This question I have not yet ascertained exactly. But I have a sneaky suspicion it's John Hopkins University in Baltimore. If that's the case, then it's okay with me because I've been to Baltimore and I do not ever ever want to live in Baltimore.

Nevertheless, this obsession with rank is very important in the United States. There is a higher density of university in the United States than anywhere else in the world. There are some 2000 institutes of higher education. And given the exorbiant cost of sending your son or daughter to some of these places, you want to know that you're getting your monies worth. Hence the existence of publications like the annual issue of US News, College Guide, where all these institutes are given a concrete irreducible number. And in such a supermarket, brand recognition is everything.