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Chapter 5. Academic Research and Development


America's academic institutions play a pivotal role in the U.S. system for conducting R&D and fostering innovation. They conduct the bulk (55%) of U.S. basic research and in the process train the nation's new researchers. U.S. universities have also become active participants in turning new research-based knowledge into innovative products and processes and in broader regional economic development activities. This chapter analyzes available data bearing on these points. (For the key output of trained personnel, see chapter 2.)

Chapter Overview

U.S. universities and colleges carry out the majority of basic research activity (55%) and a substantial portion of all R&D in the United States. The federal government has been and continues to be the major financial supporter of academic R&D, providing more than 60% of the funding in 2007. Other major funding sources are the institutions themselves, industry, and state and local government.

Over the past two decades, the shares of funding allocated to the various S&E fields[1] have changed, with the share going to medical sciences growing substantially and the share going to physical sciences and engineering declining.

Academic R&D is conducted largely by doctoral scientists and engineers. Over time, universities and colleges have relied less on full-time tenure-track faculty and more on postdocs and other nonfaculty to conduct research; in addition, a steady percentage of full-time graduate students has been supported by research assistantships. The demographic composition of academic researchers is changing, with increasing numbers of women and minorities, especially among the younger age groups, and increasing numbers of foreign-born scientists and engineers.

A measure of research output, the number of U.S. S&E articles published in the world's leading S&E journals, recently began to increase after remaining flat for almost a decade, concurrent with strong growth in the European Union and several Asian countries. However, the U.S. share of the world's S&E article output has declined since the early 1970s. The U.S. share of the world's influential—i.e., most highly cited—articles has declined, though U.S. scientific publications remain highly influential relative to those of other countries. Article output by the academic sector, which publishes most U.S. research articles, mirrored the overall U.S. trend, even as research inputs (specifically, academic R&D expenditures and research personnel) continued to increase.

Both domestic and international R&D collaboration have increased significantly over the past two decades. U.S. scientists and engineers in all sectors collaborated extensively with colleagues in other U.S. sectors and abroad. The results of academic research increasingly extend beyond articles to patents, which are an indicator of academic institutions' efforts to protect the intellectual property derived from their inventions, and to technology transfer, university-industry collaboration, and other related activities such as revenue-generating licenses and formation of startup companies that emanate from their institution.

This chapter addresses key aspects of the academic R&D enterprise, including the level, field allocation, and institutional distribution of academic R&D funds; the state of research equipment and facilities at academic institutions; trends in the number and composition of the academic S&E doctoral labor force; and indicators of research outputs.

Chapter Organization

The first section of this chapter discusses the role of academia within the national R&D enterprise. This discussion is followed by an examination of trends in the financial resources provided for academic R&D, including identification of key funders and allocations of funds 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, on the number of academic institutions that receive federal R&D support, and on equipment.

The next section examines the status of the physical infrastructure necessary to conduct university research activities. Data are presented on both the traditional research infrastructure such as research space, and on infrastructure resulting from technological changes such as networking.

The third section discusses trends in employment of academic doctoral scientists and engineers, especially those engaged in research. Major trends examined include numbers and characteristics of academic doctoral scientists and engineers, the types of positions they hold, their research activities, and the federal support for their research. The section also examines reported collaboration among researchers.

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 chapter 2 and in the preceding section of this chapter.) 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 patents). It concludes with a discussion of academic patenting and some returns to academic institutions from their patents and licenses.


[1] See appendix table 5-6 for the fields and subfields included in science and engineering in this section.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010