The top 10 institutions for Earth and environmental sciences in 2018

These 10 institutions in the Nature Index were the largest contributors to papers in Earth and environmental sciences published in 82 leading journals in 2018.

  • Nature Index

The top 10 institutions for Earth and environmental sciences in 2018

These 10 institutions in the Nature Index were the largest contributors to papers in Earth and environmental sciences published in 82 leading journals in 2018.

20 June 2019

Nature Index

Andre Kunzelmann / UFZ

Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research investigate sustainable water use in Mongolia.

Although many of the highest performing institutions this year feature in several top 10 rankings by subject, the Earth and environmental sciences category highlights a number of highly specialized institutions that only appear in this top 10 subject for 2018, including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), and the NASA.

The US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), dropped out of the top 10 this year, while China’s Peking University and the University of California, Berkeley climbed the ranks to enter at the 10th and ninth places, respectively.

See the Nature Index 2019 Annual Tables Top 100 institutions for Earth and environmental sciences in 2018.


1. Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Fractional count: 256.85, (18.5%), Article count: 757

As in chemistry and physical sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has retained first place in the Earth and environmental sciences rankings in the Nature Index for four consecutive years.

Among the 105 CAS research institutes, at least 28 primarily study the Earth and environmental sciences. Its specializations include ecology, mining, oceanography and palaeontology.

While the fight against haze and pollution has brought massive funding to CAS scientists at institutions such as the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, booming palaeontology studies are contributing an increasing number of studies published in leading journals.

There are also extensive collaborations, both within CAS and with external partners, particularly among young researchers, says Yan Hong from the Institute of Earth Environment in Xi’an, who is a major coordinator of young CAS Earth scientists’ networking activities.

2. Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

Fractional count: 140.93 (7.4%), Article count: 423

From the depths of the ocean to deep outer space, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres covers the entire gamut of Earth and environmental sciences. For the fourth consecutive year, it has maintained its position in the Nature Index as the second leading institution in the discipline.

Within the 19 research centres that make up Helmholtz as the largest scientific organization in Germany, researchers are developing a new sensor-based system that will monitor environmental trends and events in coastal areas, polar regions, in the ocean, and on land. This Modular Observation Solutions for Earth Systems will be implemented over the next five years, with Helmholtz investing €28 million (approximately US$32 million).

In 2018, researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute of the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research discovered a massive asteroid impact crater beneath an ice sheet in Greenland. The resulting Science Advances paper was among the most widely discussed online last year.

3. French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Fractional count 100.04 (−2.5%), Article count: 716

The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) is a global leader in multidisciplinary research and fundamental science.

Its major Earth and environmental science hubs are the National Institute for Earth Sciences and Astronomy and the Institute of Ecology and Environment. With scientists stationed everywhere from the Changri-Nup glacier in the Nepalese Himalayas, and the mangroves of French Guiana, to way out on the Kerguelen islands of Antarctica, the CNRS’s investigation into Earth’s form, function, and lifeforms extends around the globe.

Its Ice Memory programme, launched in 2015 by the glaciologists Jérôme Chappellaz and Patrick Ginot, aims to create a global ice-archive sanctuary in Antarctica to preserve invaluable information about the climate of the past.

A recent study by CNRS ecologists into why global seabird numbers have fallen by 70% since 1950 had some worrying conclusions for the fisheries industry.

4. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich)

Fractional count: 89.45 (6.4%), Article count: 251

When the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) opened its doors in 1855, studying the geology of the Swiss Alps was the institution’s sole focus in the Earth and environmental sciences. Today, ETH Zurich’s research investigates an array of topics, from inspecting the composition of Earth’s core to unravelling the evolutionary history of the Solar System.

As the fourth-largest producer of papers in the Earth and environmental sciences in the Nature Index, the university has moved two places up the ranks since the Nature Index 2018 Annual Tables.

ETH Zurich’s strong funding base is key to attracting and retaining top global talent. Derek Vance, head of the Department of Earth Sciences, says it also enables researchers to “aim high, take risks, and develop their research over the long-term.”

In 2018, ETH Zurich researchers found evidence that the Campi Flegrei (or 'burning fields') volcanic region near Naples is in the early stages of a new eruption cycle. Published in Science Advances, the findings present a new approach to uncovering the evolution of magma cycles.

5. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Fractional count: 85.74 (−21.6%), Article count: 431

Whether tracking changes in Earth’s atmosphere, or detecting potential signs of life on Mars, NASA is making giant leaps in the Earth and environmental sciences. The discipline accounts for more than 70% of NASA’s overall research output in journals tracked by the Nature Index.

Exploring the Solar System is NASA’s mission, so the government institution is deeply engaged in researching not just space, but Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land-based systems. In May 2019, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, an instrument that will measure carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere from the International Space Station.

In 2018, NASA scientists were part of an international team that discovered that dunes formed from frozen methane grains on Pluto. The dunes were detected by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched in 2006. The Science paper has so far been mentioned in more than 400 tweets and 150 news stories.

6. Nanjing University

Fractional count: 76.85 (20.7%), Article count: 226

Nanjing University has a strong foundation in the Earth and environmental sciences. Its Schools of the Environment, Earth Sciences and Engineering, Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences, and Atmospheric Sciences are the primary contributors to its robust performance in the discipline.

According to Xu Xisheng from the Nanjing University-run State Key Laboratory of Mineral Deposits Research, the university has set up several major research programmes in Earth and environmental sciences not only to advance scientific problem-solving, but to address national priorities related to the use of natural resources and curbing of severe pollution.

A prominent Science paper that involved Nanjing University researchers in 2019 reported greater cooling effects caused by aerosols than previously thought — a finding that points to the complexity of modelling required for climate-change predictions.

7. University of Colorado Boulder

Fractional count: 66.70 (−4.4%), Article count: 284

One of the most sustainable campuses in the United States, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) has invested in solutions to big environmental problems, from climate change to pollution, for more than half a century. These green efforts are reflected in CU Boulder’s research output, with the Earth and environmental sciences accounting for more than one-quarter of its articles in journals tracked by the Nature Index.

CU Boulder takes a collaborative approach to tackling global challenges, partnering with several organizations such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the US Geological Society. More than 800 environmental scientists work at the CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

According to James White, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the institution’s collaborative spirit is central to its values. “Pedigree is not important,” says White. “What’s important is the science.”

Last year, CU Boulder researchers led a study that investigated the impact of household products on air pollution. The paper, published in Science, so far has the highest Altmetric score of all articles produced by the institution.

8. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Fractional count: 64.64 (−23.4%), Article count: 269

Located near the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a leading producer of research in the Earth and environmental sciences. For the fourth year in a row, it has ranked among the top 10 institutions contributing high-quality output in the field.

Caltech is home to world-class facilities dedicated to exploring Earth and beyond, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Caltech Seismological Laboratory. The large-scale Earth Surface Dynamics Laboratory includes a 12-metre tilting flume, used to explore how sediment is eroded, transported and deposited on Earth’s surface.

A paper published in Science last year reported evidence of ancient organic molecules embedded in three-billion-year-old rocks on Mars, detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover.

9. University of California, Berkeley

Fractional count: 61.70 (6.1%), Article count: 218

Home of the first seismograph in the western hemisphere, the University of California, Berkeley’s (UC Berkeley) strength in the Earth and environmental sciences spans almost 150 years. Its legacy continues as a world leader in earthquake and volcanic-activity monitoring, climate-change modelling, and geochronology.

Among its large research facilities is the Paleomagnetism Lab, which features a superconducting rock magnetometer within a three-layer magnetostatic shield. Used to pinpoint the age of fossils, rocks and planetary materials, the lab’s team characterizes variations in the geomagnetic field to glean the reliability of rock records.

In 2018, a Science paper published by UC Berkeley revealed that some mammals are becoming nocturnal to avoid interacting with humans. The much-discussed study investigated the activities of 62 mammal species across six continents.

10. Peking University

Fractional count: 60.27 (27.1%), Article count: 236

Peking University was China’s first public comprehensive university, set up in 1898. Since then, it has been considered one of the country’s two best universities, alongside Tsinghua University. Located in the Haidian district of Beijing, it stands near to the Yuanmingyuan Garden and the Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It rose eight ranks to enter the top 10 in this category in 2018, enjoying the biggest percentage gain in FC of any institution for Earth and environmental sciences top 10. It was also ranked in the chemistry, physical-sciences, and life-sciences categories fifth, 11th, and 39th, respectively.

Its budgets are much more limited than Tsinghua’s: in 2018 and 2019, its overall budget was 12.55 billion yuan (US$1.82 billion) and 19 billion yuan.

Correction 12 August 2019: The original version of this article used incorrect fractional counts, percentage changes and article counts to derive the rankings, which meant that some institutions were ranked incorrectly. The data and rankings have now been corrected.