Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Oct 19th 2010 at 12:30pm UTC

Where the World’s Brains Are

Research universities increasingly function as a key hub institution of the knowledge economy – from Stanford University’s role in Silicon Valley to MIT’s role in greater Boston’s Route 128 high-technology complex, from the University of Texas in Austin to the rise of the North Carolina Research Triangle, not to mention Carnegie Mellon’s role in Pittsburgh’s regeneration. But what are the world’s leading centers for university research?

To get at this, my MPI team and I used the recently released Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) to chart the locations of the world’s leading 500 research universities by the city and metro region where they are located. The map below, by the MPI’s Zara Matheson, shows the geography of academic research centers across the world.

The U.S. is home to four of the top five centers: Boston-Cambridge in first place, followed by Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. Other leading U.S. research centers among the top 25 include: Chicago (6th), Durham-Chapel Hill (11th), Pittsburgh (13th), Trenton-Central New Jersey (14th), New Haven (17th), Ithaca (18th), San Diego (19th), Philadelphia (20th), Seattle (21st), Madison (22nd), and Baltimore (23rd).

But a number of foreign centers rank quite high. London (5th), Paris (7th), and Zurich (8th) all rank ahead of San Jose/Silicon Valley (9th). Cambridge, England is 10th, Munich 12th, Stockholm 15th, Oxford 16th, and Tokyo 24th. Toronto, where I teach, ranks 28th.

For the time being, the U.S. remains in the lead, but foreign centers appear to be gaining ground. And this trend may be accelerated by the mounting budget problems facing many states and research universities as well as cutbacks in research funding and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in some quarters of the United States. Great Resets like the current one have given rise to significant shifts in the locus of scientific research talent in the past. And this was a large part of the reason the United States eclipsed Europe on this front during the last Great Reset.

But what’s even more striking about the map is the degree of geographic concentration on the East and West Coasts of North America, Western Europe, and just a few spots in Asia and Australia/New Zealand. The concentration of the knowledge and scientific assets in just three major mega-clusters – the East Coast/Great Lakes, West Coast of North America, and in Europe – is astounding. And it is likely to reflect significant geographic advantages in research and knowledge-generation for them.

It’s a given that scientific talent is highly mobile. But distance still plays a role. All other things equal, it is both easier for and more likely that leading scientists and researchers will move within these clusters - say between Boston and New York, or even Chicago and Toronto; much the same is true among, say, L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle. And collaboration within them is surely easier as well. This kind of proximity creates considerable short- and long-run advantages both for the universities and research centers within the cluster and the cluster as a whole.

This would seem to imply that ongoing efforts to upgrade research universities, attract top scientific talent, and build world-class research environments in China, India, the Middle East, and other parts of the world are likely to face significant uphill battles. And that established mega-clusters are likely to enjoy significant advantages into the foreseeable future.

5 Responses to “Where the World’s Brains Are”

  1. Michael Wells Says:


    First the dominance of Harvard, scoring 100 of 100. Second place Berkeley is 72.4.

    Next, if we don’t separate SF & San Jose, the Bay Area moves up to #2 with Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF.

    But the big takeaway is the Bos-Wash megaregion with 12 of 50, or about 25% of the WORLD’s top universities: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Rockefeller, Maryland, Rutgers, Brown & Boston University. All in an area about half the length of California, or SF to San Diego.

    Going back a couple of posts to world financial centers, NYC, Boston & DC are in the top 20 there, with NYC slugging it out with London for #1.

    Or two other posts:
    Innovation density: Boston, NY, New Haven, Bridgeport & Trenton in top 10.
    Human Capital: NY, Bridgeport, Trenton, Boston, New Haven & DC in the top 10.

    And arguably, New Haven, Bridgeport & maybe even Trenton are in Greater New York.

    Combining these, Bos-Wash is the world’s undisputed dominant region.

  2. Deep Says:

    I have this theory, had the University of Michigan not move to Ann Arbor in 1837 from its original Detroit location. We would be seeing a totaly different Detroit. Detroit needs the growth and innovation that is occuring in Ann Arbor.

    Trenton, NJ is an extention of both the New York MSA and the Philadelphia MSA. I grew up in Trenton, and we would recieve tv stations from both Philly and New York. And it wasn’t uncommon for people to be fans of both Philly and NYC teams. That is why it is often considered it own MSA.

  3. Ian Graham Says:

    Very intersting post and suprising too. I would have thought there would be some level of concentration in areas of India and China. The data seems very western hemisphere centric.

    The other aspect is with respect to current “have not” regions … can they catch up? As I understand it Silicon Valley has been more than 50 years in the making. Do nations have the long term vision and resources to catch up and compete in the brain domain?

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    The methodology is heavily weighted towards schools that can attract and afford to pay Nobel winners, who sort of by definition are highly published. When I went to Berkeley they crowed about how many Nobel winners there were, but most undergrad classes were taught by teaching assistants, many mediocre. The Nobel winners mostly stayed in their labs and offices. And 5 of the 12 Northeast schools mentioned are Ivy League, sort of by definition rich. I expect India & China right now are focused more on training engineers and business people than on research. They have to become first world economies before they can worry about prizes.

    Having said that, I would acknowledge that most of these schools offer extremely good education, at least in the upperclassmen & grad level.

    Here’s the scoring:
    Quality of Education
    Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
    Quality of Faculty
    Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
    Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories
    Research Output
    Papers published in Nature and Science*
    Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index
    Per Capita Performance
    Per capita academic performance of an institution

  5. Deep Says:

    The biggest problem with Indian and Chinese universities is, while they accel at science and technology, they lack heavily in the liberal arts. The creative subjects. While universities on both sides of the Atlantic want to cut these departments, it is these departments that give American and British universities their comparative advantage over their Asian counterparts.

    Steve Jobs mentioned some of the most important courses he took at Reed were not programming courses, but classes in the arts. His caligraphy class enabled Macs have an extensive array of fonts.