Important Questions Raised by New Report on University R&D Funding

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Publication date: 
9 June 2004

Although brief in length, a recent report by the Science and Technology Policy Institute for the National Science Foundation raises important questions that will be long discussed about the conduct of university-based R&D in the United States. "Vital Assets: Federal Investment in Research and Development at the Nation's Universities and Colleges" is the first truly comprehensive data analysis of federal R&D spending at America's institutions of higher learning. Although primarily a reference document, the report poses several important science policy and budgetary questions, chief among them being:

"The profile of federally funded R&D at universities and colleges that emerges from this analysis raises issues of proportionality. Specifically, in the current funding profile, approximately two-thirds of the federal funds going to universities and colleges for the conduct of R&D is focused on only one field of science – life science – and federal R&D funding is concentrated at only a few research universities. These findings raise questions about whether other critical national needs that have substantial R&D components (such as environment, energy, homeland security, and education) are receiving the investment they require and whether the concentration of dollars at a few institutions is shortchanging science students at institutions that receive little or no federal R&D funding."

The report's lead author, Donna Fossum, and her colleagues framed this question after compiling and analyzing a database known as RaDiUS (Research and Development in the United States.) The database was developed for the White House Office of Science and Technology Office by the RAND Corporation, which operated the Institute, a federally funded research and development center, from 1992 to 2003. As explained in the report, the database tracks, "at both the aggregate and the detailed level, all the activities that are supported each fiscal year with the funds officially reported as paying for (i.e., purchasing) the ‘conduct of R&D' in the Budget of the U.S. Government," for four-year accredited public and private U.S. colleges and universities.

Using this historical database, the report's authors were able to make significant conclusions about R&D funding in the United States. Among them are:

From FY 1996 through FY 2002, total federal discretionary funding increased by 27.9%. In this same period, total federal R&D funding increased 20.9%. Also in this period, total federal R&D funding to universities and colleges increased by 45.7%. (All figures controlled for inflation.)

In FY 2002, medical schools received 44.9% or $9.6 billion of the $21.4 billion in federal R&D funds made available to universities and colleges.

In FY 2002, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided 67% of all federal R&D funding to universities (medical and non-medical school R&D.) Subtracting funding for medical schools resulted in HHS being the source of 40.6% of federal R&D funds.

Other major sources of federal R&D funding in FY 2002 were the National Science Foundation at 11%, Department of Defense at 7%, NASA at 5%, Department of Energy at 4%, and USDA at 3%.

In FY 2002, the top 80 universities and colleges received 71% of total federal R&D funding to academic institutions.

From FY 1996 to FY 2002, 55% of all federal R&D university funding went to institutions in nine states (CA, IL, MD, MA, MI, NY, NC, PA and TX.)

In addition to the 59-page report, there is an appendix containing detailed state charts listing every university or college receiving federal R&D funds for research in FY 2002, and the amount received. The report and the appendix can be viewed at

In the report's conclusions, the authors reiterate four important questions raised at the outset of the report:

"Are biomedical and health care issues so clearly at the top of the nation's agenda that they merit two-thirds of all federal funds provided to universities and colleges for the conduct of R&D?"

"Are other critical national needs that have substantial R&D components (such as environment, energy, homeland security, and education) getting the attention they require?"

"Are science and engineering students at universities and colleges that do not receive a notable share of federal R&D funds receiving a lower-quality education? Are their career opportunities hampered as a result?"

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