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News Release 16-142

Universities report four years of declining federal funding

While federal funds declined, universities' own R&D funding grew

Three federal agencies reported increases. All others reported declines.

While federal and state funds declined, other sources of university R&D funding increased.

November 17, 2016

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Federal funding for research at higher education institutions declined for a fourth straight year, according to a new report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES).

During a peak in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, federal funding accounted for 62.5 percent of total higher education research and development (R&D) expenditures. That figure dropped to 55.2 percent in FY 2015, the most recent year for which data are available. Overall, universities reported $68.8 billion in R&D expenditures for FY 2015; federal funding accounted for $37.9 billion of that.

Adjusted for inflation, federal funding for higher education R&D declined 1.7 percent between FY 2014 and FY 2015, and 13 percent since a peak in FY 2011. The latest figures continue the longest multi-year decline since the beginning of annual data collection in FY 1972.

Despite the drop in federal dollars, three agencies -- the Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Agriculture -- reported increases. All other major providers reported decreases. That included the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), by far the largest source of federal funds, which provided $20 billion in FY 2015, down from $23 billion in FY 2011.

While federal funds and funds from state governments decreased, other sources of university R&D funding saw increases. Universities' own funding of R&D rose by 5.9 percent in FY 2015, business expenditures by 7.5 percent, nonprofit expenditures by 6.9 percent and expenditures funded by other sources (including donations and foreign sources) by 6.4 percent. Even with the federal decrease, overall university expenditures were up by 2.2 percent compared with the previous year.

Three fields -- medical science ($21.3 billion), biological science ($11.7 billion) and engineering ($11.1 billion) -- together accounted for 64.3 percent of total higher education R&D. Medical science showed modest growth between years, while biological science and engineering essentially remained level.

Among subfields, atmospheric science grew by 14.7 percent, to $576 million, and astronomy by 18.7 percent, to $673 million. Aeronautical and astronautical engineering increased by 10.9 percent, to $734 million.

For more information, including a list of the top 30 university performers of R&D, read the full report.


Media Contacts
Robert J. Margetta, NSF, (703) 292-2663, email:

Program Contacts
Ronda Britt, NSF, (703) 292-7765, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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