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Chapter 5. Academic Research and Development


The nation’s universities and colleges play a key role in U.S. R&D by providing the following services:

  • Educating and training S&E students in research practices and other advanced skills
  • Performing a large share of the nation’s basic research
  • Building and operating world-class research facilities and supporting the national research cyberinfrastructure
  • Producing intellectual output through published research articles and patents

Over the past several decades, academic spending on R&D has continued to increase, with funding from ARRA being a major source of support since 2009. The federal government has long provided the majority of funding for academic S&E R&D. Other important sources of academic R&D funding are universities and colleges themselves, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Academic R&D expenditures have long been concentrated within a relatively small number of universities and colleges. For over 20 years, less than 12 schools each year have received about one-fifth of total academic R&D funding, about 20 schools have received close to one-third of this funding, and about 100 have received four-fifths of the total. (The identities of the universities in each group have varied over time.)

For decades, more than half of all academic R&D spending has been in the broad field of life sciences. Since the mid-1990s, about one-third of all U.S.-trained, academically employed S&E doctorate holders received their degree in life sciences (in 2010, over 50% of their foreign-trained counterparts had doctorates in life sciences). The dominance of life sciences is also seen in physical infrastructure, where two subfields of life sciences—biological sciences and biomedical sciences—account for the bulk of growth in research space and where the largest share of new university research construction has been undertaken to advance health and clinical sciences. Life sciences are also heavily featured in academic R&D output: biological sciences and medical sciences accounted for over 50% of U.S. S&E articles in 2011.

Academic R&D is increasingly collaborative. More articles are authored by researchers from different university departments, from multiple universities, or from universities in different countries. Similarly, academic collaboration with researchers in other sectors of the U.S. economy—such as federal, state, or local government; business; or FFRDCs—has been increasing. Three-quarters of all U.S. articles, many of them authored by U.S. universities and colleges, now have coauthors from multiple institutions and countries. Collaboration rates between the United States and Canada are higher than would be expected, based on publishing output, thus suggesting the importance of geographic proximity and a common language. Collaboration rates are also relatively high between the United States and Asia (in particular, China, South Korea, and Taiwan), reflecting, in part, ties formed through large numbers of students from Asian locations having studied for advanced S&E degrees in the United States. In another indicator of growing research collaboration, R&D funds passed through universities to other universities or to non-academic institutions grew more rapidly over the last decade than total academic R&D funding.

Working conditions for S&E doctorate holders within the nation’s universities and colleges as well as access to federal funds for research have undergone changes over the past 20–30 years. Although full-time faculty positions in the professoriate continue to be the norm in academic employment, S&E doctorate holders are increasingly employed in part-time and nontenured positions. Since 1995, despite an aging academic doctoral workforce, there has been a decrease in the percentage of doctorate holders with tenured positions. The share of academic researchers receiving federal support, including early career S&E faculty, has declined since 1991.

Higher education has also experienced notable changes in demographic diversity. In particular, the share of academic doctoral positions held by white, male, native-born citizens has declined. Women represent a growing share of academic doctoral employment in S&E, as do the foreign born and foreign trained. The share of Asians employed in the S&E academic doctoral workforce has grown dramatically over the past three decades, while the shares held by blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives have grown much more slowly; these latter groups remain underrepresented in the academic doctoral workforce.

There have been further shifts in the degree to which the academic doctoral workforce is focused on research activities versus teaching. Compared with the early 1990s, there has been an increase in the proportion of the academic doctoral workforce, including full-time faculty, that reports research as its primary work activity. By contrast, there has been a decline since the early 1990s in the share of the workforce that reports teaching as its primary work activity. Of those in the academic doctoral workforce reporting research as their primary activity, two-thirds are employed at the nation’s most research-intensive academic institutions. Those who primarily teach are more evenly dispersed across academia.

The United States has a strong position in the global academic R&D enterprise. With major input from the academic sector, the United States is the largest single-country producer of S&E articles, not far behind the entire EU. The global shares of the United States, the EU, and other developed countries have declined as China has become the world’s third-largest producer of S&E articles over the last decade. However, the United States continues to have a disproportionately high global share of the most-cited S&E articles, indicating that U.S. academic R&D continues to be highly influential for subsequent research around the globe.

Academic R&D increasingly advances marketplace technologies. U.S. universities continue to commercialize their research, as evidenced in the growth in the number of U.S. patent applications and invention disclosures and in the formation of startup companies. This growing commercialization of U.S. science is particularly important in biological sciences, which have spawned new discoveries in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and biotechnology. In addition, U.S. patents most frequently cite academic-authored articles within all U.S. articles, underscoring the important linkage of academic R&D to invention.