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Chapter 5. Academic Research and Development


Spending and Funding for Academic R&D

In 2009, U.S. academic institutions spent $54.9 billion on science and engineering R&D and an additional $2.4 billion in non-S&E fields.

  • In 2009, academic institutions performed nearly half (53%) of the nation's total basic research, a percent that has risen steadily from 47% in the later 1980s.
  • Academia performed 36% of all U.S. research (basic plus applied) and 14% of total U.S. R&D.
  • Higher education's share of total U.S. research expenditures (basic plus applied) has gradually increased, rising from 24% in 1982 to 36% in 2009.

The federal government provides the bulk of funds for academic R&D; during the past two decades, its share has fluctuated around 60%.

  • The federal government provided 59% ($32.6 billion) of the $54.9 billion of academic spending on S&E R&D in FY 2009. The federal share was somewhat higher in the 1970s and early 1980s.
  • Six agencies provide almost all (97% in 2009) federal academic R&D support—the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Energy, and Department of Agriculture.

The bulk of academic R&D funding from nonfederal sources is provided by the universities themselves.

  • The share of support provided by institutional funds increased steadily between 1972 (12%) and 1991 (19%) but since then has remained fairly stable at roughly one-fifth of total academic R&D funding.
  • Industry's percentage of funding for academic R&D declined steeply after the 1990s, from above 7% in 1999 down to about 5% by 2004, but has seen a 5-year increase to about 6% in 2009.
  • Support from other governmental agencies, chiefly state funds, declined from 10% in the late 1970s to about 8% through the 1990s and stood at less than 7% in 2009.

Over the last 20 years, the distribution of academic R&D expenditures across the broad S&E fields shifted in favor of life sciences and away from physical sciences.

  • In 2009, the life sciences represented the largest share (60%) of expenditures in academic S&E R&D.
  • Over the last 20 years, the life sciences were the only broad field to experience a sizable increase in share—6 percentage points—of total academic R&D. Over the same period, the physical sciences share of total academic R&D dropped 3 percentage points.

Infrastructure for Academic R&D

Research space at academic institutions has continued to grow annually over the last 20 years. Nonetheless, the pace of growth has noticeably slowed in the last few years.

  • Total research space at research-performing universities and colleges was 2.2% greater at the end of 2009 than it was in 2007, continuing a two decade long period of expansion.
  • The rate of annual increase for all S&E fields combined in the 2001–03 period was 11%, but it has gradually slowed since then. Unlike in other fields, in recent years research space for the biological/biomedical sciences and agricultural sciences has continued to expand at substantial rates.

In 2009, about $2.0 billion in current funds was spent for academic research equipment (i.e., movable items such as computers or microscopes), a 2% increase over 2008, after adjusting for inflation.

  • Equipment spending as a share of total R&D expenditures fell from 4.8% in FY 1999 to a three decade low of 3.6% in FY 2009.
  • Three S&E fields accounted for 82% of equipment expenditures in 2009: the life sciences (41%), engineering (24%), and the physical sciences (17%).
  • In FY 2009, the federal share of support for all academic research equipment funding was 55%. This share has fluctuated between 55% and 63% over the last 20 years.


Academic networking infrastructure is rapidly expanding in capability and coverage.

  • Research performing institutions had more connections, bandwidth, and campus coverage compared with earlier in the decade.
  • Colleges and universities reported external network connections with greater bandwidth, faster internal network distribution speeds, more connections to high-speed networks, and greater on-campus wireless coverage.
  • In FY 2003, 66% of institutions had bandwidth of less than 1 gigabit per second and no institutions had speeds faster than 2.5 gigabits per second. By FY 2009, 82% of institutions had bandwidth speeds of 1 gigabit per second or faster and 24% had speeds faster than 2.5 gigabits per second.

Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in Academia

The size of the doctoral academic S&E workforce was an estimated 272,800 in 2008, almost unchanged from 2006. Total academic doctoral employment grew less in this period than in any comparable period since 1973. Full-time faculty positions, although still the predominant type of employment, increased more slowly than postdoc and other full- and part-time positions.

  • The share of all S&E doctorate holders employed in academia dropped from 55% in 1973 to 44% in 2008.
  • The percentage of S&E doctorate holders employed in academia who held full-time faculty positions declined from 88% in the early 1970s to 73% in 2008. Over that same period, other full-time positions rose from 6% to 15% of total academic employment, and postdoc and part-time appointments increased from 4% and 2% to 7% and 6%, respectively.

The demographic profile of academic researchers shifted substantially between 1973 and 2008. The increasing proportion of women was a particularly striking change.

  • The number of women in academia increased more than eightfold between 1973 and 2008, from 10,700 to about 93,400, raising their share of all academic S&E doctoral employment from 9% to 34%. Women employed as full-time doctoral S&E faculty increased from 7% to 31%.
  • In 2008, underrepresented minorities (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives) constituted about 9% of both total academic S&E doctoral employment and full-time faculty positions, up from 2% in 1973.
  • The foreign-born share of U.S. S&E doctorate holders in academia increased from 12% in 1973 to nearly 25% in 2008, and nearly half (46%) of postdoc positions in 2008 were held by foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate holders. No comparable data exist for foreign-born, foreign-degreed doctorate holders.

Between 1973 and 2008, the number of academic researchers with S&E doctorates more than doubled. Among full-time faculty, the balance of emphasis in work activity shifted toward research and away from teaching. Young faculty—those within 3 years of a doctorate award—were less likely than other faculty to report research as a primary work activity.

  • About two-thirds of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in academic institutions in 2008 were engaged in research as either a primary or secondary work activity. The proportions of researchers were highest in the life sciences, engineering, and computer sciences.
  • The share of full-time S&E faculty identifying research as their primary work activity climbed from 19% in 1973 to 36% in 2008, while the share identifying teaching as their primary activity fell from 68% to 47%.
  • In 2008, 33% of recently degreed S&E doctoral faculty identified research as their primary work activity, a smaller share than reported by faculty cohorts who had earned S&E doctorate degrees 4 to 7 years earlier (48%), 8 to 11 years earlier (41%), and 12 or more years earlier (35%).

A substantial pool of academic researchers—including graduate research assistants and doctorate holders employed in postdoc positions—has developed outside the ranks of full-time faculty.

  • The number of S&E doctorate holders employed in academic postdoc positions climbed from 4,000 in 1973 to 18,000 in 2008.
  • In 2008, 36% of recently degreed S&E doctorate holders in academia were employed in postdoc positions, a figure that approached the share (42%) employed in full-time faculty positions. Among S&E doctorate holders 4 to 7 years beyond their doctorate degrees, 11% held postdoc positions.

For S&E as a whole and for many fields, the share of academic S&E doctorate holders receiving federal support declined since the early 1990s.

  • Throughout the 1973–2008 period, fewer than half of full-time S&E faculty received federal support, whereas the share of postdocs who received federal support was more than 70%.
  • Among full-time faculty, recent doctorate recipients were less likely to receive federal support than their more established colleagues.

Outputs of Academic S&E Research: Articles and Patents

S&E article output worldwide grew at an average annual rate of 2.6% between 1999 and 2009. The U.S. growth rate was much lower, at 1.0%.

  • The United States accounted for 26% of the world's total S&E articles in 2009, down from 31% in 1999. The share for the European Union also declined, from 36% in 1999 to 32% in 2009.
  • In Asia, average annual growth rates were high—for example, 16.8% in China and 10.1% in South Korea. In 2009, China, the world's second-largest national producer of S&E articles, accounted for 9% of the world total.
  • Very rapid annual growth rates of over 10% between 1999 and 2009 were also experienced by Iran, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Tunisia. However, some of these countries had low S&E article production in 1999.

Two-thirds of all S&E articles were coauthored in 2010. Articles with authors from different institutions and different countries have continued to increase, indicating increasing knowledge creation, transfer, and sharing among institutions and across national boundaries.

  • Coauthored articles grew from 40% of the world's total S&E articles in 1988 to 67% in 2010. Articles with only domestic coauthors increased from 32% of all articles in 1988 to 43% in 2010. Internationally coauthored articles grew from 8% to 24% over the same period.
  • U.S.-based researchers were coauthors of 43% of the world's total internationally coauthored articles in 2010.
  • Three other nations—Germany, the United Kingdom, and France—had high, though declining, shares of international coauthorships. Chinese authors increased their share of the world's internationally coauthored S&E articles from 5% to 13% between 2000 and 2010.
  • In the United States, because of the predominance of the academic sector in S&E article publishing, academic scientists and engineers have been on the forefront of the integration of S&E research across sectors. In non-academic sectors, cross-sector coauthorship with academic authors ranged from 55% to 76% in 2010.

Like indicators of international coauthorship, cross-national citations provide mixed evidence of changes in the worldwide scope, influence, and quality of U.S. S&E research.

  • Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. share of the world's total citations in S&E articles declined from 45% to 36%, reflecting the broad expansion of the global literature. China's share of these citations increased from 1% to 6%. The EU share remained steady at 33%, and Japan's share fell from 7% to 6%.
  • The percentage of U.S.-authored S&E articles receiving the highest number of citations—an indicator of quality and impact on subsequent research—has changed little. In 2010, U.S. articles represented 28% of all articles in the cited period, but 49% of the articles in the top 1% of all cited articles.

Data on citations per publication suggest that the quality of U.S.-authored articles has changed little over the past 10 years.

  • In 2010, articles with U.S. authors were highly cited about 76% more often than expected based on the U.S. share of world articles, compared to 85% in 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, EU-authored articles improved on this indicator, from 27% less often than expected to 6% less often.
  • In 2010, China's rate of high citation was nearly equal to its rate of publication in engineering and computer science, but its citation rate did not exceed its publication rate in any field. In most broad fields, China's rate of high citations compared to its publication rate was higher in 2010 than in 2000.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) data show that annual patent grants to universities and colleges ranged from 2,900 to 4,500 between 1998 and 2010.

  • College and university patents have been about 4.2% to 4.7% of U.S. nongovernmental patents for a decade. Biotechnology patents accounted for most U.S. university patents in 2010, at 30%, a percentage that has grown over the past 15 years.
  • Data from the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) indicate continuing growth in a number of patent-related activities. Invention disclosures grew from 12,600 in 2002 to 18,200 in 2009. New U.S. patent applications filed by AUTM university respondents also increased, from 6,500 in 2001 to 11,300 in 2009. In contrast, the number of issued patents reported by AUTM respondents has remained flat.