Strengths and challenges
characterize the position of academic R&D in the United States
at the beginning of the 21st century. Its graduate education, linked
intimately to the conduct of research, is regarded as a model by
other countries and attracts large numbers of foreign students,
many of whom stay after graduation. Funding of academic R&D
continues to expand rapidly, and universities perform nearly half
the basic research nationwide. U.S. academic scientists and engineers
are collaborating extensively with colleagues in other sectors and,
increasingly, with international colleagues: in 2001, one U.S. journal
article in four had at least one international coauthor. Academic
patenting and licensing continue to increase, and academic and other
S&E articles are increasingly cited in patents, attesting to
the usefulness of academic research in producing economic benefits.
Academic licensing and option revenues are growing, as are spinoff
companies, and universities are increasingly moving into equity
positions to maximize their economic returns.
However, there are challenges to be faced and trends that bear
watching. The Federal Government's role in funding academic R&D
is declining. Research-performing universities increased their own
funds, which now account for one-fifth of the total, but are facing
financial pressures. Industry support has grown, but less than might
be surmised, given the close relationship between R&D and industrial
innovation. Industry support accounted for less than 7 percent of
the total in 2001. Spending on research equipment as a share of
all R&D expenditures declined to less than 5 percent by 2001,
a trend worthy of attention.
Academic employment has undergone a long-term shift toward greater
use of nonfaculty appointments, both postdocs and other positions.
A researcher pool has grown independent of growth in the faculty
ranks. These developments accelerated during the latter half of
the 1990s, when both retirements and new hires were beginning to
rise. This raises the question of how these related trends will
develop in the future, when retirements are expected to further
Another aspect of this issue is the level of foreign participation
in the academic enterprise. Academia has been able to attract many
talented foreign-born scientists and engineers, and the nation has
benefited from their contributions.
However, as the percentage of foreign-born degree holders approaches
half the total in some fields, attention shifts to degree holders
who are U.S. citizens. Among those, white males were earning a declining
number of S&E doctorates. On the other hand, the number of S&E
doctorates earned by U.S. women and members of minority groups has
been increasing, and these new Ph.D. holders were more likely to
enter academia than white males. By providing role models, this
development will perhaps attract to the sciences and engineering
some of the growing numbers of students from minority backgrounds
who are expected to enroll in college over the next quarter century.
Questions arise about the changing nature of academic research
and the uses of its results. The number of U.S. articles published
in the world's leading S&E journals has essentially been level
since the early to mid-1990s, a trend that remains unexplained.
This development follows increased funding for academic R&D
and coincides with reports from academic researchers that fail to
show any large shift in the nature of their research. Regarding
protection of intellectual property, universities moving into equity
positions raise unresolved conflict-of-interest concerns for institutions
and researchers. Public confidence in academia could decline should
academia's research or patenting and licensing activities be perceived
as violating the public interest.