Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • Institutions of higher education in the United States spent nearly $90 billion on R&D in FY 2021, the highest amount reported to date. Most of that spending (55%) was financed by federal government sources. 
  • Higher education institutions perform a significant amount of the basic research conducted in the United States. In calendar year 2021, academic institutions represented 44% of U.S. basic research performed that year. However, that share has declined since 2012, when academia performed 54% of basic research. Overall, academic research and development (R&D) represented 11% of total U.S. R&D performed in 2021, compared with 14% in 2012.
  • In 2021, the United States ranked highest among 32 leading countries or regions in total funding of academic R&D, but it ranked 23rd when academic R&D spending is expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product.
  • Academic institutions perform R&D using specialized facilities and equipment. In 2021, U.S. universities and colleges reported that facilities devoted to research occupied 236.1 million net assignable square feet (NASF), compared with 202.2 million in 2011. These institutions reported that they expect to invest $12.8 billion in new research facilities in 2022 and 2023, providing an additional 10.6 million NASF of research space.
  • The number of women in the science and engineering (S&E) research doctoral academic workforce trained in the United States increased from about 78,700 to about 140,800 between 2003 and 2021, while the number of men grew from about 180,700 to about 206,400. In 2021, 41% of S&E doctorate holders employed in academia were women.
  • In 2021, 10% of S&E doctorate holders employed in academia and 9% of full-time faculty were individuals who identified as underrepresented minorities—Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native—compared with 7% and 7%, respectively, in 2006.
  • Students pursuing S&E doctorates and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) are engaged in academic R&D, and they are concentrated in institutions with very high research activity. In 2021, these institutions enrolled about 80% of S&E doctoral students and employed over 80% of S&E postdocs.

R&D conducted at U.S. universities contributes to fundamental discoveries, problem-solving, and the creation of new technologies. Engagement in academic R&D constitutes a key element of the education and training of the nation’s advanced scientific and technical workforce. Funds provided by federal agencies, universities and colleges, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments cover much of the costs of academic R&D. These funds also provide financial support for graduate students and postdocs, many of whom then join the U.S. R&D workforce.

The federal government is the main funder of U.S. academic R&D spending, financing nearly 55% of academic R&D expenditures in FY 2021—down from 61% in FY 2012. Concurrently, the share of R&D spending by U.S. higher education institutions from those institutions’ own funds rose from 21% to 25%. Six agencies provided more than 90% of federal support for academic R&D—the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.

Academic R&D spending is concentrated in a relatively small share of all U.S. higher education institutions. In FY 2021, the 131 institutions with very high research activity accounted for nearly 75% of U.S. academic R&D spending, out of 3,733 total institutions granting 4-year degrees. Those 131 institutions also enrolled about 80% of the nation’s S&E doctoral students and employed over 80% of the nation’s S&E postdocs. The 30 institutions ranked highest in R&D spending in FY 2021 accounted for 42% of all academic R&D expenditures that year.

The scale and share of academic R&D at U.S. institutions of higher education vary by institutional characteristics. In FY 2021, public universities accounted for more of the academic R&D spending (65%) than did private universities (35%). However, private universities constituted 14 of the 30 universities with the highest R&D spending that year. R&D at universities with medical schools represented a considerable share of academic R&D spending, accounting for 75% of all federally supported academic R&D spending in FY 2021.

Graduates from minority-serving institutions contribute to the diversity of the U.S. S&E workforce. In FY 2021, 56 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) reported R&D expenditures in the Higher Education Research and Development Survey, and their federally supported R&D spending totaled $402 million. However, in constant 2012 dollars, that total was $339 million—35% lower than federal funding of R&D spending reported by HBCUs in FY 2012, in constant dollars. The 97 institutions identified as high-Hispanic-enrollment institutions reported around $8.8 billion dollars in academic R&D spending in FY 2021; about 46% of that spending came from federal government funds.

Graduate students and postdocs are essential to the U.S. academic R&D labor force and often receive financial support for their studies. Sources of support for S&E graduate students vary by the level of study. Master’s students are largely self-supporting, and doctoral students are primarily supported by their academic institutions and the federal government. Patterns of support vary by field, type of institution attended, and students’ demographic characteristics. In 2021, the federal government funded about half of S&E postdocs, mainly through research grants, whereas institutions funded over one-fifth of postdocs. S&E postdoctoral appointments were concentrated in the biological and biomedical sciences and health sciences.