Alanna Gannon holds a pipette in a lab

PhD researcher Alanna Gannon in Doug Melton’s lab in the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.Credit: B. D. Colen/Harvard University

The life-sciences rankings are remarkably stable, with the top six for 2018 remaining unchanged from 2017’s rankings. Some jostling occurs in the lower half of the top 10, with the University of Cambridge entering the rank this year, rising five slots from 14th place last year.

The University of Pennsylvania regains its 10th position in 2018, after being absent from the top 10 for the previous two years. See the 2019 Annual Tables Top 100 institutions for life sciences in 2018.

1. Harvard University

Fractional count*: 621.64 (−7.7%), Article count: 1,637

Harvard University owes two-thirds of its research output to contributions made in the life sciences, thanks in no small part to the Harvard Medical School, which employs almost 10,000 full-time faculty members and counts 15 Nobel prize winners among its staff and alumni.

High-profile researchers include stem-cell biologist, Steven Gygi, one of the leading authors in the biomedical sciences and jointly credited for the BioPlex network — the largest open-access resource for studying protein interactions — and Albert Hofman, a world leader in the epidemiology of common neurological and vascular diseases such as dementia, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Immunology continues to be a big focus for the university as the potential of advanced cellular therapies such as CAR T-cell therapy is tested. While researchers pursue innovations such as diagnostic devices powered by CRISPR–Cas, major collaborative efforts, such as with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, will push the boundaries of disease detection and treatment.

2. National Institutes of Health

Fractional count: 348.12 (−6.6%), Article count: 821

With a budget of US$37 billion (2018), the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest single public funder of biomedical research in the world. It comprises 27 separate institutes and centres of various biomedical disciplines, and is led by physician-geneticist, Francis Collins, former head of the NIH’s Human Genome Project (HGP), the world's largest collaborative biological project.

Since launching in 1990, the HGP has resulted in about US$1 trillion of economic growth — a 178-fold return on investment — at a cost of only US$2 per year for each US resident, according to an analysis cited by the NIH. Other significant NIH-supported research includes the discovery of fluoride to prevent tooth decay; the use of lithium to manage bipolar disorder; and the creation of vaccines against hepatitis, Haemophilus influenzae and human papillomavirus.

The NIH has maintained the second spot in the Nature Index top 10 table for life sciences for the past four years, with approximately half the fractional count of Harvard, which consistently tops the charts in this category.

3. Stanford University

Fractional count: 300.65 (1.4%), Article count: 733

Life sciences is a major contributor to Stanford University’s high-quality research output, as tracked by the Nature Index. It is home to pioneering work in DNA synthesis, stem-cell isolation, and the first successful human heart and lung transplant.

The Stanford School of Medicine, which has more than 2,000 full-time faculty members, dominates the university’s life-sciences output, and with US$381 million in NIH funding, claims the highest funding per researcher ratio in the United States.

In the Nature Index Biomedical Sciences 2019 supplement, Stanford bioengineer and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth was named one the field’s most prolific authors in high-quality journals. He is credited with the development of optogenetics, a method that uses light to genetically alter brain-cell activity.

Key life-sciences initiatives at Stanford include Bio-X, where doctors, scientists and engineers work collaboratively to unravel the complexity of the human body.

4. Max Planck Society

Fractional count: 292.64 (1.1%), Article count: 1,017

With 27 institutes and 7 research facilities dedicated to biology and medicine, the Max Planck Society is a formidable player in the life sciences.

Across the society’s institutes, researchers explore a diverse range of questions, from how insects evolved their sense of smell, to figuring out how to connect nerve cells to semiconductor chips. At the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, researchers use computer simulations and experimental methods to tease apart how humans and other animals process information.

In 2018, Max Planck researchers were part of an international team that produced the first monkey clones (Cell).

5. Chinese Academy of Sciences

Fractional count: 252.84 (12.3%), Article count: 784

In the past four years, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has been the only Chinese institution in the Nature Index’s top 10 for life sciences. Peking University, the second highest placed Chinese institute in this category, is ranked 39th for life sciences in the 2019 Annual Tables.

As in the other categories, many of CAS’s 105 institutes are focused on life-sciences research, the top player of which is the Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences (SIBS). The formation of SIBS in 1999 brought together eight Shanghai-based CAS life-sciences institutes, including the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience, which published key papers in 2018 on the neural mechanisms that underlie itchiness (The Journal of Neuroscience) and more targeted gene-editing using CRISPR–Cas9 (Nature Neuroscience).

“CAS has many research teams in the different areas of the life sciences, so it’s easier to perform cross-academy collaboration in life-science research,” says Qiu Zilong, senior investigator at the CAS Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience.

6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Fractional count: 208.54 (−3.1%), Article count: 817

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an annual budget of more than US$3.5 billion (2018), a strong entrepreneurial culture, and an emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s where the first chemical synthesis of penicillin was achieved in 1957, and, more recently, where researchers devised a miniaturized system that can deliver tiny quantities to specific regions of the brain just 1 cubic millimetre in size.

Now the new Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research are teaming up to bring together life scientists, engineers and AI experts with the shared goal of finding more effective approaches to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“MIT fosters collaboration with an emphasis on solving the problem and bringing together disciplines to make this happen,” says vice-president for research, Maria Zuber.

MIT appears in several top 10 lists in Nature Index’s 2019 Annual Tables, including physical sciences and chemistry, and is ranked third overall among global academic institutions.

7. University of California, San Francisco

Fractional count: 200.65 (10.2%), Article count: 547

Gaining five spots to re-enter the top 10 for life sciences in the Nature Index, the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) has made its mark in the advancement of new cellular therapies and gene-editing techniques.

Since 2018, UCSF researchers have devised a safer and cheaper way to genetically engineer immune cells (Nature); modified CRISPR to treat genetic diseases without making permanent changes to the genome (Science); and waded into a decades-long debate with the finding that adult human brains do not produce new neurons (Nature).

Key programmes under way are the ImmunoX Initiative, which is exploring entirely new areas of immunology, and the Center for Digital Health Innovation, which is partnered with high-profile enterprises such as the US$600-million Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. These projects exemplify UCSF’s passion for collaboration, says executive vice-chancellor and provost, Daniel Lowenstein.

“The truly rare ingredient in UCSF’s ‘special sauce’ is generosity — a genuine wish by senior and junior investigators alike to see everyone succeed. Our research community’s greatest pleasure is in celebrating our collective achievements.”

8. Yale University

Fractional count: 192.08 (0.1%), Article count: 439

Founded in 1701, Yale University is the third-oldest higher-education institution in the United States. With the Yale School of Medicine opening in the early nineteenth century, the university’s strength in the life sciences runs deep.

Yale’s research in the life sciences is set to make even bigger leaps, with the launch of the Center for Biomedical Data Science early in 2018. In addition to organizing and storing vast amounts of data, the centre brings together biomedical researchers and data scientists to help improve health-care systems, treatments methods and diagnosis.

In 2018, Yale researchers reported the results of the most comprehensive genomic analysis of the human brain ever undertaken, revealing the changes it undergoes through development, how it varies among individuals, and the roots of neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

9. The University of Cambridge

Fractional count: 187.76 (11.6%), Article count: 583

Although the University of Cambridge dropped out of the Nature Index physical-sciences top 10 this year, it entered the life-sciences top 10 at rank 9 — a big leap from its 2017 spot at 14th for life sciences.

High-profile researchers in the life sciences at Cambridge include Nobel prize-winning biologist, Martin Evans, who with his colleague, Matthew Kaufman, was the first to culture and cultivate mice embryonic stem cells in 1981. Developmental biologist, John Gurdon, was the joint recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that mature cells can be converted to stem cells.

Rising stars include Rogier Kievit, who studies neurodevelopmental changes in cognitive abilities such as reasoning, problem-solving and goal management, and Hannah Critchlow, who has been named as a Top 100 UK scientist by the Science Council for her work in science communication and as one of the university’s most “inspirational and successful” women.

10. University of Pennsylvania

Fractional count: 186.31 (1.6%), Article count: 483

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is home to the Perelman School of Medicine, the oldest medical school in the United States. Life sciences accounts for around 60% of the university’s papers in journals tracked by the Nature Index.

The Center for Global Health at UPenn aims to tackle inequities in health care in 65 countries, including Sudan, Argentina and Vietnam. The centre’s Botswana–UPenn Partnership, which has been operating for two decades, is working to improve health care in the region and is conducting research on HIV/AIDS.

Last year, UPenn was involved in the development of a blood test that identified pregnant women at risk of delivering prematurely. The paper, published in Science, was among the institution’s most-talked about articles in 2018.

Index metrics

*Fractional Count is assigned to institutions based on the contributions of their affiliated authors to articles in the 82 journals tracked by the Nature Index database, with all authors on each article considered to have contributed equally, and a maximum combined FC for any article of 1.0.

The bracketed figure shows the percentage change in the institution’s Fractional Count in the subject in 2018.

An institution is given an article count of 1 for each article that has at least one author from that institution in one of the 82 journals that make up the Nature Index.