The nation’s universities and colleges play a key role in U.S. R&D by providing the following services:

  • Educating and training S&E students in research practices and other advanced skills
  • Performing a large share of the nation’s basic research
  • Building and operating world-class research facilities and supporting the national research cyberinfrastructure
  • Producing intellectual output through published research articles and patents

Over the past several decades, academic expenditures on R&D have continued to increase, with slowing growth trends in recent years. Although the federal government has long provided the majority of funding for academic R&D through research grants and contracts, its share of total academic R&D funding has declined in recent years. The percentage paid for by universities and colleges, meanwhile, has increased markedly in recent years, but these funds do not replace federal research funds in kind. Other important sources of academic R&D funding are state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Academic R&D expenditures have long been concentrated in a relatively small number of universities. For the last quarter century, fewer than 12 universities each year have received about one-fifth of total academic R&D funding, about 20 universities have received close to one-third of this funding, and about 100 have received four-fifths of the total. (The identities of the universities in each group have somewhat varied over time.)

For decades, more than half of all academic R&D spending has been in the broad field of life sciences. However, over the past decade, spending on engineering R&D has outpaced growth in spending in the sciences in the aggregate.

About one-third of all U.S.-trained, academically employed S&E doctorate holders received their degree in life sciences. (In 2015, just over 55% of their foreign-trained counterparts had doctorates in life sciences.) The dominance of life sciences is also seen in physical infrastructure, where two subfields of life sciences—biological sciences and biomedical sciences—account for the bulk of growth in research space and where the largest share of new university research construction has been undertaken to advance health and clinical sciences.

The structure of academic employment of S&E doctorate holders within the nation’s universities and colleges has undergone substantial changes over the past 20–30 years. Although full-time faculty positions in the professoriate continue to be the norm in academic employment, S&E doctorate holders are increasingly employed in part-time and nontenured positions. Since 1995, the percentage of doctorate holders with tenured positions has decreased even as the academic doctoral workforce has aged. The share of academic researchers receiving federal support, including early career S&E faculty, has declined since 1991. Funding success rates have declined at NIH and NSF over the past 15 years.

Higher education has also experienced notable changes in demographic diversity. In particular, the proportion of academic doctoral positions held by white, male, native-born citizens has declined. Women represent a growing proportion of academic doctoral employment in S&E, as do the foreign born and foreign trained. The proportion of Asians or Pacific Islanders employed in the S&E academic doctoral workforce has grown dramatically over the past three decades, while the shares held by blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives have grown much more slowly; these latter groups remain underrepresented in the academic doctoral workforce.

There have been further shifts in the degree to which the academic doctoral workforce is focused on research activities versus teaching. Among full-time doctoral S&E faculty, priority shifted from teaching to research from 1973 to 2003; since 2003, however, the proportions of faculty who primarily teach and those who primarily conduct research have remained relatively stable. Of those in the academic doctoral workforce reporting research as their primary activity, two-thirds are employed at the nation’s most research-intensive academic institutions. Those who primarily teach are more evenly distributed across academia.

Overall, the United States remains the most influential individual nation in its contribution to S&E publications, based on overall size of the U.S. contribution and its relative impact, as measured by citations in S&E publications. The bibliometric data described in this chapter show U.S. research maintaining global strength in the life sciences, as demonstrated by publication output and citations.

In terms of S&E research quantity, but not impact, China produced the most S&E publications in 2016. Growth trends in S&E publications reflect the spread of overall economic and social development across the world. Building from a higher base, the developed world, including the United States, the EU, and Japan, is growing more slowly in S&E publications, and developing nations are increasing production more quickly.

In addition to the increased performance in the developing world, individual nations within the EU and the developed world have emerged as research hubs, as demonstrated by their citations. International research collaboration is increasing, reflecting traditional cross-country ties and new ones that stem from growing capabilities in the developing world. This international collaboration and the accompanying rise in international citations indicate that S&E knowledge is flowing with increasing ease across the world. Unlike the competition for finite resources, the creation of S&E research adds to the knowledge base available for use worldwide—a communal supply on which more and more countries can capitalize as research capacities increase globally.