The World’s Most Innovative Research Institutions – 2017

The Hubert H. Humphrey Building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in Washington, D.C.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in Washington, D.C.

(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a reputation for being a staid regulatory and service agency in charge of essential programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. It doesn’t exactly enjoy a reputation for being a hotbed of innovation—but it should.


HHS tops Reuters’ second annual ranking of the Top 25 Global Innovators – Government, a list that identifies and ranks the publicly funded institutions doing the most to advance science and technology. The rankings were compiled in partnership with Clarivate Analytics, formerly the Intellectual Property & Science business of Thomson Reuters, and are based on proprietary data and analysis of indicators including patent filings and research paper citations.

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HHS takes top honors, rising from 4th place in 2016, largely due to its increasingly influential patent portfolio, which saw a rise in the number of citations by researchers at other institutions around the world. Moving from first to second place on this year’s list is France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), which specializes in nuclear and renewable energies, defense and security, as well as information technology and health. And dropping from second to third is Germany’s Fraunhofer Society. It is Europe's largest applied research institution, with 24,000 staff members in 67 institutes and research units in fields such as energy, transportation, communication, healthcare and environment.

The United States is tied with Germany for the most institutions in the top 25, with five each; France and Japan each have four; and Australia, Canada, China, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom have one. Viewed on a regional basis, European institutions dominate the list, with 11 ranked institutions compared to eight in Asia-Pacific and six in North America.

While they might not get the headlines that Silicon Valley startups do, government agencies have long been on the forefront of innovation. They conduct the long-term and expensive R&D that private companies find hard to justify to shareholders. The results of government-funded research are part of everyday life, including fluorescent lights, lasers, the global positioning system and the Internet.

At Health and Human Services, researchers focus on innovations that protect the health and well-being of American citizens, and its 11 operating divisions include some of the nation’s most active centers for scientific inquiry. The National Institutes of Health, for example, is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers, and has paved the way for important discoveries including the invention of magnetic resonance imaging, the mapping of the human genome, and more recently the development of CRISPR, a genome editing tool that is fueling a boom in new treatments and products from medical and pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies emerging health threats and develops new treatments for deadly diseases like malaria and Ebola. The Food and Drug Administration funds the creation of innovative new medical devices and pharmaceutical products. And that’s just a partial list. The other subsidiary agencies of HHS also consistently produce patents and papers that are frequently cited by outside researchers, showing that HHS has an outsized impact on R&D efforts at other government agencies, academia and private industry.

Other U.S.-based institutions on the list include the Department of Veterans Affairs (#17), the U.S. Navy (#22), and two organizations funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory (#24), and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (#25). (Where possible, Clarivate Analytics ranks the specific entity responsible for producing research, instead of its parent organization. Since Department of Energy labs file their patents individually, that allowed them to be ranked individually. Other organizations, like HHS and VA, centralize administration so that patents only list the name of their parent agency; in those cases, the parent organization was ranked instead of its subsidiaries.)

Of course, the relative ranking of any institution—or whether it appears on the list at all—does not provide a complete picture of whether its employees are doing important research. Since the ranking primarily measures innovation on an institutional level, it may overlook departments at agencies which aren’t overall focused on science: The U.S. Department of the Interior, for instance, is primarily dedicated to the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources, but important research is performed at its subsidiary operating units, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. And since the ranking is based on a rolling eight-year window of patent filings and publications, some highly innovative organizations may find themselves missing from the current list even though they have been responsible for some of the biggest innovations in human history –and likely will be in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was ranked #24 on the list in 2016, but just missed the top 25 on this latest edition.

To compile the ranking, Clarivate Analytics began by identifying more than 600 global organizations (including educational institutions, nonprofit charities, and government-funded institutions) that published the most articles in academic journals. Then they identified the total number of patents filed by each organization and evaluated each candidate on factors including how many patents it filed, how often those applications were granted, how many patents were filed to global patent offices in addition to local authorities, and how often the patents were cited by other patents. Candidates were also evaluated in terms of the number of articles published by researchers in academic journals, how often those papers were cited by patents, and how many articles featured a co-author from industry. Finally, they trimmed the list so that it only included government-run or -funded organizations, and then ranked them based on their performance.

Read the full methodology. (Editing by Arlyn Gajilan and Alessandra Rafferty)