Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development


Chapter Overview

The academic sector continues to be a major contributor to the nation's scientific and technological progress, both through the generation of new knowledge and ideas and the education and training of scientists and engineers (see chapter 2). The nation's universities and colleges continue to perform more than half of the United States' basic research. The federal share of support for overall academic research and development, which had been declining for more than three decades, recently began increasing, and in 2003 the federal government provided more than 60% of the financial resources for academic R&D.

The allocation of the national academic R&D investment has been changing over time in several ways. More than half of all academic R&D funds now go to the life sciences. This share has grown over the past several decades, prompting discussion about the appropriate distribution of funds across disciplines. The number of academic institutions receiving federal support for R&D activities increased during the past three decades, expanding the base of the academic R&D enterprise beyond the traditional research institutions. Academic science and engineering infrastructure, both research equipment and research space, also grew over the past decade. However, the percentage of total annual R&D expenditures devoted to research equipment continued to decline.

Doctoral S&E faculty in universities and colleges play a critical role in ensuring an adequate, diverse, and well-trained supply of S&E personnel for all sectors of the economy. Demographic projections point to the potential for strong enrollment growth and the continuation of several trends—notably, more minority participation, more older students, and more nontraditional students. These changes are all likely to affect not only the composition but also the role of doctoral S&E faculty in the future. Recent hiring trends suggest movement away from the full-time faculty position as the academic norm. Academia may also be approaching a period of increasing retirements due to an aging labor force. Future trends for foreign graduate students and foreign-born faculty continue to be uncertain in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, and the growing capacity in higher education in many countries.

The number of U.S. S&E articles published in the world's leading S&E journals has remained flat since the mid-1990s, whereas the number of articles published in the European Union (EU) and several East Asian countries has grown strongly. The number of influential articles from U.S. institutions, as measured by citation frequency, has likewise remained flat. As a result, the U.S. share of the world's influential articles has declined. Article output by the academic sector, which publishes most U.S. research articles, has mirrored the overall U.S. trend, even though research inputs (specifically, academic R&D expenditures and research personnel) have continued to increase. Academic scientists and engineers collaborate extensively with colleagues in other U.S. sectors, and international collaboration has increased significantly over the past two decades. The output of academic research has increasingly extended to patent protection of research results as the number of U.S. patents and other related activities has grown over the past two decades.

In this context, and driven by financial and other pressures, universities and colleges will continue to debate questions about their organization, focus, and mission. To help provide a context for such discussions, this chapter addresses key aspects of the academic R&D enterprise, including the role of the federal government and other funders in supporting academic research; the distribution of support across the nation's universities and colleges; the allocation of funding across S&E disciplines; research equipment and facilities at academic institutions; trends in the number and composition of the academic S&E doctoral labor force; and research outputs in the form of refereed journal articles and academic patents.

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Chapter Organization

The first section of this chapter discusses trends in the financial resources provided for academic R&D, including providers of support and allocations across both academic institutions and S&E fields. Because the federal government has been the primary source of support for academic R&D for more than half a century, the importance of selected agencies to both overall support and support for individual fields is explored in some detail. This section also presents data on changes in the distribution of funds among academic institutions and on the number of academic institutions that receive federal R&D support. It concludes with an examination of the status of two key elements of university research activities: equipment and infrastructure.

The next section discusses trends in the employment of academic doctoral scientists and engineers and examines the positions they hold, their activities, and demographic characteristics. The discussion of employment trends focuses on full-time faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and other positions. Differences between the nation's leading research universities and other academic institutions are considered. The involvement of women and minorities is also examined, as are shifts in the faculty age structure. Attention is given to participation in research by academic doctoral scientists and engineers, the relative balance between teaching and research, and the provision of federal support for research. The section also reviews selected demographic characteristics of recent doctorate holders entering academic employment.

The chapter concludes with an analysis of trends in two types of research outputs: S&E articles, as measured by data from a set of journals covered by the Science Citation Index (SCI) and the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), and patents issued to U.S. universities. (A third major output of academic R&D, educated and trained personnel, is discussed in this chapter and in chapter 2). This section looks specifically at the volume of research (article counts), collaboration in the conduct of research (joint authorship), use in subsequent scientific activity (citation patterns), and use beyond science (citations to the literature that are found in patent applications). It concludes with a discussion of academic patenting and some returns to academic institutions from their patents and licenses.

National Science Board.