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Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences

NSF 99-342  April 16, 1999
by Alan I. Rapoport
 
What is the Federal Role in Supporting Academic Research and Graduate Research Assistants?
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The level and distribution of Federal academic R&D funds and graduate student support result from the funding decisions of individual agencies.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Federal agencies emphasize different S&E fields in their funding of academic research and in their support of graduate students.

 

 

 

The Federal Government is a major financial supporter of both academic research and development (R&D) and science and engineering (S&E) graduate students. The overall level and the distribution of both its academic R&D and graduate student support result from the funding decisions of individual agencies. The agencies' different missions lead them to adopt different emphases in the fields they support and in their R&D and graduate assistance programs. For many of these agencies, the major form of graduate student support is indirect, through research assistantships, rather than through direct fellowships or traineeships.

The balance of academic R&D funding across agencies is therefore likely to affect the distribution of support among both S&E fields and graduate students. This Issue Brief examines the current (1997) distribution of Federal agencies' academic R&D support across S&E fields, the nature and distribution of their graduate student support, and their relative importance in the Federal support received by specific S&E fields.[1]

In 1997, the Federal Government provided an estimated 60 percent of academic R&D funds. It also was the primary source of financial support for 20 percent of all full-time S&E graduate students (30 percent if those whose primary support is from own, spouse, or family resources are excluded). However, for half of those students whose primary support mechanism was a research assistantship (RA), the Federal Government was the primary source of financial support.

Federal obligations for academic R&D are concentrated in a small number of agencies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Defense (DoD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) combined provided an estimated 91 percent of total Federal financing in 1997.[2] Federal support for S&E graduate students is also relatively concentrated in the same five agencies: 75 percent of all students with primary support from the Federal Government and also 75 percent of students whose primary mechanism is a federally funded RA.[3]

 
Percent of academic
R&D support
Percent of federally
funded RAs
NIH
56
24[4]
NSF
14
25
DoD
11
15
NASA
6
5
USDA
4
6

Federal Academic Research Support by Field[5]
Federal agencies emphasize different S&E fields in their funding of academic research. Several agencies concentrate much of their funding in one field. NIH spends 89 percent of its funds on the life sciences.[6] USDA also spends three-quarters of its academic research funds in the same field.[7] Other agencies-NSF, NASA, and DoD-have more diversified funding patterns. About 20 percent of NSF funds each go to the physical sciences and engineering, with another 16-17 percent to both the life sciences and the environmental (earth, atmospheric, and oceanographic) sciences. NASA's distribution is 37 percent to the physical sciences, 29 percent to the environmental sciences, and 15 percent to engineering. DoD provides 40 percent of its academic research support to engineering, 23 percent to the computer sciences, about 11 percent to the physical sciences, and 10 percent to both the life and environmental sciences (figure 1).

Figure 1

Even though an agency may place a large share of its academic research funds in one field, it may not be a leading contributor to that field (figure 2). NSF is the lead funding agency in the physical sciences (34 percent of total funding), the mathematical sciences (65 percent), the social sciences (38 percent), and the environmental sciences (46 percent). DoD is the lead funding agency in computer science (49 percent) and engineering (38 percent). NIH is the lead funding agency in the life sciences (86 percent) and psychology (89 percent). Within finer S&E field classifications, other agencies take the leading role.[8]

figure 2

Agency Support of S&E Graduate Research Assistantships by Field
Just as Federal agencies emphasize different S&E fields in their funding of academic research, they also emphasize different fields in their support of graduate research assistants. NIH concentrates its RA support in the life sciences (73 percent), as does USDA (74 percent). DoD and NASA concentrate their RA support in engineering (58 and 51 percent, respectively). NSF, on the other hand, has a more diversified RA support pattern, with 36 percent in engineering, 29 percent in the physical sciences, and 10 percent in both the environmental and computer sciences (figure 3).

figure 3

In terms of agencies' importance to Federal graduate RAs in particular fields (figure 4):

  • NSF is the lead supporting agency in the mathematical sciences (41 percent of federally supported RAs), the environmental sciences (41 percent), the physical sciences (37 percent), and in engineering (29 percent).
  • NIH is the lead support agency in the life sciences (60 percent) and psychology (56 percent).
  • DoD is the lead support agency in the computer sciences (43 percent).[9]

Figure 4

   

Conclusion
These data illustrate the diversity across Federal agencies' support in the S&E fields emphasized in their funding of both academic research and S&E graduate students. They show that changes in the balance of academic research funding across agencies are likely to affect both the distribution of research funding among S&E fields and the availability of Federal RAs and other types of support to graduate students.

Sources
The sources of data for this issue brief are: 1) the Survey of Federal Funds for Research and Development, which is an annual survey designed to obtain data about Federal funding for R&D in the United States; and 2) the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, which is an annual survey designed to obtain data on the number and characteristics of graduate science and engineering students enrolled in U.S. institutions, including information on primary sources and mechanisms of financial support.

This Issue Brief was prepared by:

Alan I. Rapoport
Division of Science Resources Studies
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230
703-306-1776 ext. 7208
E-mail: arapopor@nsf.gov

SRS data are available through the World Wide Web (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/). For more information about obtaining reports, contact pubs@nsf.gov. or call (301) 947-2722. For NSF's Telephonic Device for the Deaf, dial (703) 306-0090. In your request, include the NSF publication number and title, your name, and a complete mailing address.


Footnotes

[1] The discussion focuses on five selected agencies, which together accounted for 91 percent of Federal academic R&D support in 1997. It focuses on these agencies because they are the only ones identified individually in the 1997 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, which is the source of the graduate student support data cited here.

[2] The Department of Energy (DOE) provided an additional 5 percent of the 1997 obligations for academic R&D.

[3] See National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators-1998, NSB 98-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), chapter 5, "Federal Support of Academic R&D" for trend data.

[4] NIH provides a larger-than-average share of its graduate support-25 percent-through traineeships.

[5] Only Federal funds in support of basic and applied research, but not development, are categorized by field of science and engineering.

[6] NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It provides 98 percent of HHS's total academic research funding and its life sciences academic research funding.

[7] Another agency, not included in this analysis, that concentrates its academic research funding is DOE, which allocates 60 percent of it to the physical sciences.

[8] See National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators-1998, NSB 98-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), chapter 5, appendix tables 5-10 and 5-11 for more detailed information.

[9] To see which agencies take the leading role within finer S&E field classifications, see National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators-1998, NSB 98-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998), chapter 5, appendix tables 5-42 and 5-43.


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