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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 5:
Financial Resources for Academic R&D
Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in Academia
Outputs of Scientific and Engineering Research: Articles and Patents

Academic Research and Development

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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 accelerate.

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.

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