Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • In inflation-adjusted dollars, total academic research and development (R&D) has grown every year since 1975. Academic institutions in the United States performed $79.4 billion in R&D in 2018, and they have long been responsible for performing about half of all U.S. basic research. Nearly two of every three academic R&D dollars supports basic research, whereas both applied research and development receive smaller but growing shares.
  • The federal government is the largest funder of academic R&D, providing more than half of total funds in 2018. After several years of declining funding levels, federal funding for academic R&D has increased by 5% since 2015 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Institutional support has increased more rapidly and represents an increasingly larger share of total academic R&D. In 2018, institutional funds constituted more than one-quarter of university R&D, up from less than one-fifth in 2010.
  • Most academic R&D is performed by a small percentage of U.S. higher education institutions. The highest research activity doctoral universities perform three-quarters of all academic R&D. These institutions also award around three-quarters of U.S. science and engineering (S&E) doctoral degrees.
  • Academic institutions added more than 32 million net assignable square feet (NASF) of S&E research space between 2007 and 2017, reaching a total of 220 million NASF. Research space in the biological and biomedical sciences accounted for 40% of this growth. S&E funds expended on research equipment have fluctuated over the past several years but are at levels similar to those a decade ago when adjusted for inflation.

R&D conducted by higher education institutions is a key component of the overall R&D system of the United States. Academic institutions have long been responsible for performing about 10% to 15% of total U.S. R&D, including about half of all U.S. basic research. Nearly two-thirds (62% in 2018) of the R&D performed by academic institutions is basic research, around one-quarter is applied research, and about one-tenth is development. Both applied research and development have increased in recent years as percentages of overall academic R&D.

In 2018, academic institutions performed $79.4 billion in R&D, most of it funded by a small number of sources. The federal government is the largest funder, providing more than half (53%, or around $42 billion) of total funds in 2018. The federal share has declined from 59% in 2010 (excluding funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [ARRA]) and from 69% in 1973. Six agencies provide more than 90% of federal support for academic R&D. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the largest, at 55% of federal funding for R&D in 2018 ($22.9 billion), followed by the Department of Defense at 14% ($5.9 billion), the National Science Foundation (NSF) at 13% ($5.3 billion), the Department of Energy (DOE) at 4% ($1.8 billion), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at 4% ($1.5 billion), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) at 3% ($1.2 billion). In 2018, institutional funds constituted more than one-quarter of university R&D, up from less than one-fifth in 2010 and from about one-tenth in 1973. Additional academic R&D funders include nonprofit organizations, businesses (industry), and state and local governments.

U.S. academic R&D performance is concentrated in a small percentage of higher education institutions. The 115 highest research activity doctoral universities, as defined by Carnegie classification, perform three-quarters of academic R&D. Institutions with medical schools also perform a large amount of academic R&D. The concentration of most R&D performance in a few institutions is greater for private universities than public universities.

Most academic R&D is also concentrated in a few S&E fields. The life sciences have long accounted for more than half of total academic R&D; engineering constitutes about another 15%. The federal government provides the majority of funding for academic R&D in all broad S&E fields except social sciences. Each of the six main federal agencies that sponsor academic R&D funds a portfolio consistent with its mission. Most resources from each type of nonfederal academic R&D funder are allocated to life sciences. In each broad S&E field, institutions themselves contributed half or more of nonfederal academic R&D.

Physical infrastructure underlies the ability of academic institutions to perform R&D. Academic institutions added 32 million NASF of S&E research space between 2007 and 2017, led by the addition of 13 million NASF in biological and biomedical sciences. Research space in all S&E fields increased over the past decade by varying amounts, except for space devoted to computer and information science research, which declined by 600,000 NASF. Despite some fluctuations, research equipment expenditures at academic institutions are at levels similar to those a decade ago when compared in constant dollars. Finally, the federal share of total funding for research equipment expenditures remained below 50% for the fifth consecutive year in 2018. Before 2014, federal support for research equipment had not fallen below 50% since data were initially collected in 1981.