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Chapter 5. Academic Research and Development


U.S. universities and colleges continue to be key performers of U.S. R&D, particularly for basic research. Academic spending on R&D has continued to increase yearly over the last 10 years, both in current dollar and inflation-adjusted terms. Academic R&D spending primarily supports basic research—it accounted for 75% in 2009, with another 21% supporting applied research and 4% for development—proportions that have been stable over the decade. The federal government has long provided the majority of funding for academic R&D, at 59% in FY 2009. This federal support has grown yearly over the last 10 years—although when adjusted for inflation, FYs 2006 and 2007 were years of real dollar declines. Academic R&D has also long been concentrated in just a few S&E fields. For decades, more than half of all academic R&D spending has been in the life sciences.

The structure and organization of academic R&D have also changed. Research-performing colleges and universities continued to expand their research space, particularly in the biological and medical sciences, which are the fields with the bulk of R&D expenditures.

Both the overall academic S&E doctoral workforce and the academic research workforce have continued to increase, although the change since 2006 was the smallest single-period increase on record. The life sciences accounted for much of the growth in the academic S&E doctoral workforce, and life scientists represented more than a third of academic S&E doctoral researchers in 2008. The growth in the number of new PhDs has outpaced the growth in the number of full-time faculty positions since the late 1980s, particularly among life scientists. The following long-term academic workforce trends continue: a relative shift of S&E doctorate holders away from full-time faculty positions toward other full-time positions, part-time positions, and (in some years) postdocs; a relative shift toward greater employment of women and minorities; a steadily increasing proportion of foreign-born faculty and postdocs; and a decline in share of academic researchers receiving federal support. Federal support has been less available to early career S&E doctoral faculty than to more established faculty, and the percentage of early career S&E faculty with federal support has declined since 1991.

The intimate links between research and U.S. graduate education, regarded as a model by other countries, helps to bring large numbers of foreign students to the United States, many of whom stay in the country after graduation. Academia has also been able to attract many talented foreign-born scientists and engineers into its workforce. In research institutions, foreign-born faculty who received their degrees in the United States approach half the total of all U.S. degrees granted in engineering and computer science.

Data on S&E research articles suggest that research is increasingly done in team settings: the number of authors per article has steadily increased over the past 20 years. Academic R&D is also becoming more international, and this trend is reflected in the data on S&E articles. U.S. academic scientists and engineers are collaborating extensively with colleagues in other countries—in 2010, nearly one-third of S&E articles with a U.S. author also had at least one coauthor from abroad, and U.S. authors appeared on more than 40% of all internationally coauthored articles.

Citation data indicate that U.S. scientific publications remain highly influential relative to publications from other countries. However, the relative volume of U.S. article output has not kept up with the increasing outputs of the European Union and several countries in Asia. In recent years, China has become the second-largest national producer of S&E articles.