Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • Academic institutions in the United States have long been responsible for performing about half of all U.S. basic research and about 10% to 15% of total U.S. research and development (R&D). In 2019, they performed $83.7 billion in R&D. Nearly two of every three academic R&D dollars supported basic research. Applied research and experimental development received smaller but growing shares.
  • The federal government was the largest funder of academic R&D, providing more than half of total funds in 2019. Six departments or agencies provided more than 90% of federal support for academic R&D. Institutional funds have grown as a percentage of total funding: in 2019, they constituted more than a quarter of university R&D, up from less than a fifth in 2010.
  • The very high research activity doctoral universities performed three-quarters of all academic R&D. These institutions also enrolled or employed more than 80% of science and engineering (S&E) doctoral students and postdocs.
  • In 2018, out of 44 countries, the United States ranked highest in overall higher education expenditure on R&D but ranked 23rd in higher education R&D expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).
  • Two fields—biological and biomedical sciences and engineering—have primarily driven the continual increases in academic S&E research space. These two fields accounted for 60% of total research space growth from 2007 to 2019. Research equipment expenditures have fluctuated over the last 15 years but stand at levels similar to those a decade ago.
  • Salaries, wages, and fringe benefits made up the largest component of academic R&D direct costs (57% in 2019). Investments in the education and training of students and postdocs made by the federal government, academic institutions, and other funders related closely to their investments in academic R&D.

Academic institutions in the United States have a dual mission. They educate and train the next generation of citizens and workers and, at the same time, perform a significant portion of all U.S. basic research. The outputs of academic R&D (e.g., S&E professionals, scientific publications) differ from outputs produced by R&D in other sectors, like the business sector. Thus, academic institutions fill a unique niche in the U.S. S&E enterprise.

Most academic R&D is funded by a few sources. The federal government has long been the largest funder and provided more than half (53%, or around $45 billion) of total funds in 2019. Six agencies—the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA)—provided more than 90% of federal support for academic R&D.

The increasing share of academic R&D funds from institutions themselves reflects both increased institutional contributions to R&D and improved measurement of those contributions over time. Additional academic R&D funders included nonprofit organizations, businesses (industry), and state and local governments.

U.S. academic R&D performance was concentrated in a small percentage of higher education institutions. Doctoral universities with very high research activity, as defined by the Carnegie classification, performed more than three-quarters of academic R&D. The concentration of R&D in a few institutions was greater among private universities than public universities.

Institutions with medical schools also performed a large amount of academic R&D, a function of the large proportion of academic R&D devoted to life sciences. The life sciences have long accounted for more than half of total academic R&D, with engineering second at around 16% in 2019. The federal government provided the majority of funding for academic R&D in all broad S&E fields except social sciences. The six main departments or agencies that sponsored academic R&D funded portfolios consistent with their missions. In almost all broad S&E fields, institutions themselves contributed half or more of nonfederal academic R&D.

When comparing nations, the United States in 2018 ranked highest of 44 countries in overall higher education expenditure on R&D. However, it ranked 23rd out of 44 in higher education expenditure as a percentage of GDP. The relative contributions of different sectors to higher education R&D differed greatly between countries.

Physical infrastructure underlies the ability of academic institutions to perform R&D. Academic institutions added 39 million net assignable square feet (NASF) of S&E research space between 2007 and 2019, led by the addition of 14 million NASF in biological and biomedical sciences. Research space in all S&E fields increased over the past decade, except for space devoted to computer and information science research, which declined slightly. Despite some fluctuations, 2019 research equipment expenditures at academic institutions, when compared in constant dollars, were at their highest levels in the past six years. In 2014, the federal share of funding for research equipment fell below 50% for the first time since data were initially collected in 1981 and remained below ever since.

Graduate students and postdocs are essential to U.S. academic R&D. Sources of financial support for S&E graduate students depended on level of study. Master’s students largely supported themselves, whereas doctoral students were primarily funded by academic institutions and the federal government. Teaching assistantships (TAs) and fellowships were mainly institutionally funded, whereas nearly half of research assistantships (RAs) were funded through federal academic research grants. Patterns of support varied by field, type of institution attended, and students’ demographic characteristics.

The federal government funded around half of S&E postdocs, mainly through research grants. Institutions themselves funded around a quarter of postdocs. S&E postdoctoral appointments were concentrated in the biological and biomedical sciences and health sciences, with earth and physical sciences and engineering making up most of the remainder.