University of California doctoral programs rank among the best in the nation, according to a National Research Council report released last month (Sept. 28). The 2010 NRC report differs greatly from its previous version in 1995. One important change is the inclusion of a variety of agricultural and natural resources fields among those evaluated.

The University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources includes Agricultural Experiment Station professors and Cooperative Extension specialists on the Berkeley, Davis and Riverside campuses.

UC, which was founded as an agricultural college in 1868, stood out in the new NRC rankings of programs in agricultural and resource economics, entomology, plant sciences and nutrition.

The 2010 NRC version relies on data collected in 2006 at 212 universities nationwide. The report uses 20 different variables to assess each program by what it calls S-rankings and R-rankings. R-rankings were generated using weights based on regression analysis of the rankings small groups of professors gave to a subset of programs in a particular field. S-rankings were calculated using weights for each of the 20 measures of program quality, from faculty size to graduate student support. S-rankings were more data driven than the R-rankings, in which reputation carried greater weight, potentially leading to a "halo effect" in the evaluations.

One of the most important variables in the rankings was research activity, measured in terms of the number of research publications published, the number of times these publications were cited, and grants and awards.

"The research activity rankings in agricultural sciences reflect the valuable contributions of faculty and specialists affiliated with UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources," said Daniel M. Dooley, UC senior vice president.

NRC presented the rankings as ranges encompassing a 90 percent confidence level, meaning that if a program was ranked in the range from 1 to 5, there is a 90 percent probability the true rank of the program would be somewhere in the top five. The NRC chose this method of presenting the study results in recognition of the uncertainty associated with input from different assessors.

One of the standouts among UC's agriculture-related doctoral programs was UC Berkeley's agricultural and resource economics program, which received an unambiguous S-ranking of 1 as well as a research activity ranking of 1. UC Davis' agricultural and resource economics program followed closely with a 2 to 4 S-ranking and 2 to 5 research activity ranking.

The entomology Ph.D. programs at UC Riverside and UC Davis both had S-rankings of 1 to 7. Entomology research activity was ranked 1 to 5 for UC Riverside and 2 to 13 for UC Davis. UC Berkeley's entomology program wasn't evaluated because the NRC limited the number of fields evaluated for UC Berkeley's multidisciplinary Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

UC Berkeley's plant biology program received an S-ranking of 1 to 6 with its research activity ranking 1 to 5, and its nutrition program earned an S-ranking of 1 to 10 with its research activity ranking 1 to 9. The UC Davis plant biology program received an S-ranking of 5 to 29 with its research activity ranking 6 to 43, and its nutritional biology program had an S-ranking of 3 to 16 with its research activity ranking 4 to 21.

"For nearly a century, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors have been applying agricultural research knowledge from UC campuses to their communities to solve problems and improve the sustainability of California farms and our entire food system," Dooley said. "The NRC report shows that agricultural research also strengthens the quality of our educational programs."

UC President Mark Yudof said, "The NRC and other ranking tools attest to the fact that UC is the finest public research university system in the nation, if not the world, and that we cannot let the threat of economic uncertainty diminish us in any way."

The NRC, along with the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, make up the National Academies, which provide independent science, health and technology policy advice to the U.S. government. The NRC report can be seen on the Web at http://www.nap.edu/rdp/.