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NSF: Federal Role in Academic R&D Funding Has Diminished

The United States government's role in funding science and engineering research and development has declined, according to new information released by the National Science Foundation. However, the federal government remains easily the largest source of funding for such research.

The report, Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges, has been conducted annually since 1972 in an attempt to gauge R&D expenditures in universities and colleges and track their sources to help policymakers and academic planners formulate future funding. The survey includes institutions that offer bachelor's programs (or higher) in science and engineering and perform at least $150,000 in separately budgeted science and engineering research and development. It also includes data from federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) "administered by academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and industrial organizations." There were 690 eligible institutions in 2008, of which 679 participated in the survey.

According the R&D funding survey, in 2008 the U.S. government accounted for roughly $31.23 billion of the total $51.9 billion in research and development expenditures reported by institutions in 2008, or about 60 percent of all such R&D funding. That's down from 64 percent in 2008.

However, NSF pointed out that the dollar figure represents the first real increase in federal funding since 2005: 2.5 percent. (When adjusting for inflation, the increase is 0.2 percent.) Real declines in federal funding were seen in FY 2006 and 2007.

Taking up the slack for the federal government in last year were state and local governments, industry, and academic institutions themselves. Funding from all sources outside the federal government grew 8.3 percent in 2008. Individual sources break down as follows:

  • State and local government increased 8.8 percent to $3.4 billion;
  • Funding from industry increased 7.1 percent to $2.9 billion; and
  • Funding from colleges and universities increased 7 percent to $10.4 billion.

"Additionally," NSF reported, "R&D funds for joint projects that were passed through primary university recipients to other university subrecipients nearly doubled from fiscal year 2000 to fiscal year 2008, from $0.7 billion to $1.4 billion in constant 2000 dollars. The current dollar amount of $1.7 billion represents 3.3 percent of total academic R&D expenditures in fiscal year 2008, compared with 2.3 percent of the total in fiscal year 2000."

Among federal sources of funding, the Department of Health and Human Services was the single largest contributor, at $17.5 billion. It was followed by NSF itself ($3.77 billion) and the Department of Defense ($3.08 billion), then Energy ($1.13 billion), NASA ($1.06 billion), and Agriculture ($893 million). All other agencies accounted for about $2.87 billion.

The recipients of the most significant contributions from the federal government included:

  • Life sciences: $18.66 billion;
  • Engineering: $4.7 billion;
  • Physical sciences: $2.74 billion;
  • Environmental sciences: $1.83 billion; and
  • Computer sciences: $1.03 billion.

Those fields receiving less than $1 billion in FY 2008 from federal sources included social sciences ($810 million), psychology ($637 million), and "mathematical sciences" ($445 million).

Among the top-5 fields receiving funding, federal priorities were in line with priorities from all funding sources combined, except in the case of computer science, which overall came in below social sciences.

The vast majority of the top-20 institutions in terms of R&D expenditures increased these expenditures between 2007 and 2008, with the exceptions of Duke University ($767 million in 2008, down from $782 million in 2007); the Ohio State University system ($703 million in 2008, down from $720 million in 2007); and the University of Florida ($584 in 2008, down from $593 in 2007). Stanford University was flat in 2008 at $688 million. The top-20 institutions were as follows:

  1. Johns Hopkins University, including the Applied Physics Laboratory: $1.68 billion;
  2. University of California, San Francisco: $885 million;
  3. University of Wisconsin-Madison: $882 million;
  4. University of Michigan (all campuses): $876 million;
  5. University of California, Los Angeles: $871 million;
  6. University of California, San Diego: $842 million;
  7. Duke University: $767 million;
  8. University of Washington: $765 million;
  9. University of Pennsylvania: $708 million;
  10. Ohio State University (all campuses): $703 million;
  11. Pennsylvania State University (all campuses): $701 million;
  12. Stanford University: $688 million;
  13. University of Minnesota (all campuses): $683 million;
  14. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: $660 million;
  15. Cornell University (all campuses): $654 million;
  16. University of California, Davis: $643 million;
  17. University of Pittsburgh (all campuses): $596 million;
  18. University of California, Berkeley: $592 million;
  19. University of Florida: $584 million; and
  20. Texas A&M University: $582 million.

Further information on the NSF report is available here. A detailed summary of the data can be found here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .

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