Reuters

Despite a flagging economy and supposedly waning global influence, America still comes out on top

With the economy still struggling and Washington mired in political dysfunction, harbingers of American decline are everywhere.

But there is one critical area where the United States holds sway: America is home to nearly one-third of the 400 best research universities in the world, according to the 2011 World University Rankings by Times Higher Education.

The U.K. is a distant second with 52 (12.9 percent), less than half the American total, followed by Germany with 22 (5.5 percent), Australia with 21 (5.2 percent), and Canada with 18 (4.5 percent). For all the talk of their rapid economic ascent, the so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China rank much further down the list. India has but one world-class university. Brazil and Russia each have two. Only China breaks the top tier, tied for tenth place with Sweden.

The maps below by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute chart the total number and percent share of leading research universities across the nations of the world.

Great universities are a key factor in technological innovation and economic competitiveness. From Stanford and MIT, which catalyzed Silicon Valley and Cambridge’s Route 128, to the North Carolina Research Triangle and the University of Texas at Austin, universities are anchor institutions of the innovative knowledge-based economy. Business Week recently ranked Boulder – home to the University of Colorado – as the nation’s number one location for start-up companies. Great universities have also enabled older industrial regions to rebuild. Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh have been central to the latest phase of Pittsburgh’s regeneration. And universities act as economic stabilizers in times of economic crisis. College towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Gainesville, Florida, have been among the nation’s most resilient communities over the course of the Great Recession.

But that raises the question of how exactly universities factor into the competitiveness and wealth of nations. That's the topic of my next post which will run later this week.

Photo credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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