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The U.S. Science and Engineering Landscape

Changes in the major institutions that engage in S&E R&D and help prepare the workforce of the future usually occur gradually, typically over a longer time scale than changes in economic markets. This section describes consequential changes and continuities in the major institutions involved in U.S. S&E activity over the last two decades, focusing on institutional features that play important roles in R&D and in S&E education. Attention is devoted primarily to higher education, industry, and government, which are the largest funders and performers of R&D and the biggest employers of workers with S&E training. However, other institutions that play important niche roles (e.g., nonprofit funders and performers of research; federally funded research and development centers [FFRDCs]) are also mentioned. Other institutions that lay important foundations for a knowledge economy (e.g., K–12 education) are discussed in the body of the report.

Cross-Sector Collaboration

Ironically, a focus on institutions highlights one of the most striking changes in the U.S. S&E landscape in recent years—the growth of cross-institution, cross-sector, and cross-national collaboration. Institutions and disciplines that formerly inhabited almost entirely separate worlds more frequently collaborate on projects and cross boundaries to enter previously unfamiliar territory.

Publication data show the clearest evidence of this trend. Although the distribution of S&E publication activity between academic and nonacademic institutions remained relatively stable between 1997 and 2012 (figure O-19), with academic institutions producing the large majority of publications, the proportion of collaborative publications increased. The share of S&E articles with more than one named author grew, as did the percentages involving institutional and international coauthorships (figures O-20 and O-21).

From 1990 to 2012, the share of purely U.S. S&E articles with authors from multiple institutions grew from 34% to 62%. Collaborative publication was more common in the U.S. academic sector than in other U.S. institutional sectors. The share of purely U.S. academic articles with authors from multiple academic institutions rose from 16% in 1990 to 31% in 2012 (figure O-20).[8] Other U.S. institutional sectors showed a similar trend toward collaborative publication among multiple institutions during this period. The average number of authors on papers published by authors from U.S. academic institutions also increased considerably, rising from 3 authors in 1990 to 8 authors in 2012 (figure O-21).

Between 1997 and 2012, internationally coauthored articles grew from 16% to 25% of the world’s total. In the United States, the trend toward more international collaboration was even stronger. The percentage of U.S. articles with coauthors from institutions in other countries almost doubled (from 19% to 35%) between 1997 and 2012. Worldwide in 2012, 59% of all S&E articles with only domestic authors were produced with coauthors at different institutions (43% in 1997). Collaborative research articles receive more citations than single-author articles, suggesting higher quality or greater impact.

Publication data reveal increased collaboration between U.S. authors at academic institutions and other organizations that perform R&D, indicating a growing connection between the basic research performed in the academic sector and the more applied work characteristic of other sectors. In various institutional sectors—including industry, federal government, FFRDCs, and private nonprofit—the proportion of articles with academic sector coauthors increased by about 12–14 percentage points between 1997 and 2012.

The flow of funding among institutions also illustrates the trend toward collaborative research. Over the past 15 years, pass-through funding, in which funding for R&D at one university is shared with one or more collaborating institutions, has grown more rapidly than overall academic R&D expenditures. Between FY 2000 and FY 2009, the pass-through funds that universities provided to other universities grew by 171% (from $700 million to $1.9 billion), while overall academic R&D expenditures grew by only 82% (from $30.1 billion to $54.9 billion).

Moreover, a growing proportion of patents are citing S&E literature on their cover pages. This indicates an increasing connection between higher education and the institutions that translate research findings into commercial innovations. Of patents awarded to both U.S. and foreign assignees, 12% cited S&E articles in 2003, and that share grew to 15% in 2012.

Just as academic research is increasingly interconnected both nationally and globally, business R&D has also been developing more international and interorganizational linkages. The rise in these kinds of linkages has coincided with the decline of large research organizations, such as Bell Labs, that performed fundamental research inside major corporations and with a concomitant drop in research publications attributed to industry (from 15,614 to 11,779 between 1990 and 2012).

U.S. Higher Education

Institutions of higher education are responsible for S&E education and training and perform the majority of U.S. basic research. In these respects, the functions of the higher education system have remained largely unchanged in recent decades.

The organization of higher education, however, has undergone significant modifications, including changes in the opportunity structure for research doctorate holders. Over the past 20 years, there has been a declining ratio of tenured to nontenured positions, even as the professoriate has aged substantially.[9] Growth in the numbers of individuals in other positions—including academic postdoctorates and nontenured full- and part-time positions—has been substantial.

Between 1995 and 2010, the proportion of S&E faculty in academia reporting research as their primary job activity edged up slightly (from 33% to 36%), and the share of those identifying teaching as their primary activity fell from 54% to 47%. Further evidence of the growing importance of research in the U.S. academic sector can be seen in the growth of research expenditures in general and in revenues from federal appropriations, grants, and contracts.

In public very high research universities,[10] inflation-adjusted research expenditures grew by about 150%, and revenues from federal awards grew by about 190% in the same period. In private very high research universities, the corresponding growth rates were approximately 160% and 140% (figure O-22).

Historically, the training of the next generation of highly skilled researchers in S&E has been concentrated in doctorate-granting institutions with very high research activity. It still is, but to a lesser extent than it once was. In 2011, these institutions awarded 74% of doctoral degrees, 42% of master’s degrees, and 38% of bachelor’s degrees in S&E fields. That is down from 94% (doctoral), 55% (master’s), and 45% (bachelor’s) in 1998. The change suggests a growing role in advanced S&E education for higher education institutions that are less centrally research- and S&E-oriented.

In addition, higher education institutions that are primarily oriented toward teaching, such as community colleges, play an important role in preparing students for advanced training in S&E. One-fifth of all U.S. citizens or permanent residents who received a doctoral degree from 2007 to 2011 had earned some college credit from a community or 2-year college. Moreover, the share of bachelor’s degree recipients with at least some credit from community colleges increased from 43% in 1999 to 49% in 2010 (figure O-23).

Revenue and expenditure patterns for higher education institutions have also undergone significant changes over the last two decades. Between 1987 and 2010, state and local appropriations per full-time equivalent (FTE) enrolled student at public universities fell by more than 25% on average after adjusting for inflation. At the same time, inflation-adjusted net student tuition per FTE student more than doubled at these universities, in effect replacing public sources of funding with private ones. Tuition and fees for public colleges and universities grew faster than median household income during this period (figure O-24).

To acquire revenue to support research and other operating activities, higher education institutions in the United States increasingly tapped sources such as higher tuition rates that generate revenues from students from more-affluent families, foreign students who pay full tuition, and outside grant support for research activities. Increasing grant receipts, however, do not necessarily cover the full costs of grant administration, especially in S&E areas, such as biomedical research, for which universities must bear the significant costs of monitoring compliance with research regulations.

Finally, among various long-term changes, one feature of the higher education research landscape shows remarkable continuity. The bulk of R&D expenditures in the United States are concentrated among a small number of research-intensive institutions, and the extent of this concentration has remained very consistent over the last two decades, even as the identity of the institutions in the top groups has changed. In FY 2012, the top 10 institutions in terms of R&D performance accounted for 18.0% (18.8% in FY 1989), the top 20 for 30.6% (32.5%), and the top 100 for 78.8% (82.0%).

Degree Production

With the growth of a knowledge economy over recent decades, a larger number of U.S. students are getting S&E degrees and eventually finding jobs in S&E occupations. Between 2000 and 2011, there were sizeable increases in the number of earned S&E degrees at the bachelor’s (+39.1%), master’s (+56.6%), and doctoral levels (+35.5%) (figure O-25). These increases were similar to the corresponding increases for degrees in all fields in the same period—38.2% (bachelor’s), 60.1% (master’s), and 33.2% (doctoral).

As the number of S&E bachelor’s degrees has grown steadily over the past 15 years (with a new peak of over half a million in 2011 [figure O-26]), increasing proportions of the graduates earning those degrees have been women or members of racial and ethnic minorities (figure O-27). Since the late 1990s, about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and half of all S&E degrees have been awarded to women. Percentages of S&E degrees awarded to women are highest in the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and in psychology. At the same time, for all racial and ethnic groups, the total number of bachelor’s degrees earned, the number of S&E bachelor’s degrees earned, and the number of bachelor’s degrees in most S&E fields (except computer science) have generally increased since 2000.

For over 20 years, about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees have been awarded in S&E fields. Likewise, the distribution of degrees across S&E fields remained remarkably similar between 2000 and 2011. Percentages of bachelor’s degrees in S&E were almost unchanged in engineering (about 14% in both years), biological and agricultural sciences (21%), and psychology (18%). Physical sciences (3.7% in 2000; 3.5% in 2011) and mathematics (2.9% in 2000; 3.3% in 2011) also did not exhibit major changes. Social sciences experienced a slight increase (28.5% in 2000; 31.1% in 2011) and computer sciences a small decrease (9.4% in 2000; 7.9% in 2011).

Demographics of the U.S. S&E Labor Force

Although the demographics of persons receiving S&E training and entering the S&E labor force remain quite different from those of the general U.S. population, there has been some general movement toward more diversity of participation in S&E occupations. Proportions of workers in minority groups have increased, while the percentage of whites has dropped from 84% in 1993 to 70% in 2010.

While women represent half of the college-educated workforce, they are underrepresented in the S&E workforce. In 2010, women accounted for only 37% of employed individuals with a highest degree in an S&E field and 28% of employed individuals in S&E occupations. Yet, these percentages represent increases since 1993, when the comparable figures were 31% and 23%, respectively (figures O-28 and O-29).

S&E participation has also risen over time among racial and ethnic minorities, particularly among Asians but also, to a lesser degree, among Hispanics and blacks (figure O-30). Despite this increase, participation varies substantially across groups. In 2010, Asians worked in S&E occupations at much higher rates (19%) than their representation in the general U.S. population (5%), whereas historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics, represented a much smaller proportion of the S&E workforce than their share of the U.S. population. In total, Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians or Alaska Natives account for 26% of the U.S. population age 21 and over but only for 10% of workers in S&E occupations and for 13% of S&E highest degree holders. In comparison, in 1993, Hispanics and blacks accounted for 7% of workers in S&E occupations, 8% of S&E highest degree holders, and 9% of the college-degreed workforce.

The share of workers holding a bachelor’s degree or above in S&E occupations who are foreign born has increased over the last decade. Among college-educated S&E workers, the foreign-born share increased from 22.4% in 2000 to 26.2% in 2011 (figure O-31). The percentage of workers with a doctorate who are foreign born increased from 37.6% in 2000 to 43.2% in 2011. For holders of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the changes were, respectively, from 16.5% to 19.0% and from 29.0% to 34.3% between 2000 and 2011.

Among foreign-born individuals with S&E doctorates living in the United States in 2010, slightly more than one-third were born in China (23%) and India (13%) (figure O-32). After rising for most of the 2000–09 decade, the number of foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees declined in 2009 and 2010. Newer data indicate a slight increase, suggesting that the decline may have been temporary.

R&D Funding

Of the more than $420 billion of U.S. R&D funding, over 90% comes from either the business sector (63% in 2011) or the federal government (30% in 2011). These proportions have been relatively stable over the last decade (69% and 25%, respectively, in 2000). Consistent with the growing commercial relevance of systematic knowledge, business sector funding as a proportion of overall R&D funding increased rapidly for over 30 years beginning in 1965. In the last two decades, however, federal funding has also increased substantially, and the ratio between U.S. federal and business sector R&D funding has been relatively stable, with U.S. federal funding being somewhat less than half the size of business sector spending on R&D since the mid-1990s. Thus, although federal funding as a proportion of national R&D had declined during the decades following World War II, the federal government has continued to fund a large and generally stable share of national R&D over the last decade (figure O-33).

During the last two decades, the division in national R&D among basic research, applied research, and development has also been fairly stable (18%, 19%, and 63%, respectively, in 2011). Different institutions tend to perform different kinds of R&D projects. In 2011, the business sector was the largest performer of R&D activities in the United States (70%) because it performed most of U.S. applied research (57%) and development (88%). It executes relatively little basic research (17% in 2011). The academic sector, which performed only 15% of national R&D in 2011, in contrast, accounted for most U.S. basic research (55%).

In many respects, federal funding patterns show substantial continuity. Thus, the Department of Defense has continually accounted for more than half of annual federal R&D spending. Likewise, federal funding consistently has been the main source of funding for academic R&D. Over the last decade, the federally funded proportion of R&D at public academic institutions increased from 52% (1999) to 58% (2012). At private institutions, it remained roughly constant, at or around 72% (figure O-34). For all academic institutions, the share of academic R&D expenditures that is funded by the institutions themselves has increased substantially over the last four decades. It grew from about 12% in 1972 to approximately 19% in 1990 and has remained relatively stable since then.

Federal R&D spending over the last two decades has changed substantially in one respect: health-related R&D has grown sharply, going from 12% of total federal R&D budget authority in FY 1980 to 22% in FY 2011. A corresponding major shift has occurred in the distribution of academic R&D expenditures among S&E fields, which has moved away from physical sciences and toward the life sciences. Data on research space at academic institutions and publications likewise reflect a more dominant role for life sciences in academic R&D.

During the international financial crisis that started in late 2008, the three institutional sectors mainly responsible for R&D funding and performance—business, universities and colleges, and the federal government—faced budgetary challenges. Many businesses were unable to secure credit or were unwilling to make investments in view of uncertainty about the length and the intensity of the economic downturn. Universities and colleges faced steep budget cuts, prompted by declining state appropriations or shrinking endowments. Along with many governments across the world, the federal government took on unexpected and unprecedented financial commitments to guarantee the integrity of the international and national financial systems.

Consequently, R&D investments in all three sectors were curtailed and broke away from their long-term growth trend. In the United States, for the first time in 50 years, R&D expenditures remained stagnant in 2009 (figure O-35). The main reason for this was a sharp reduction in business R&D. The overall national impact was tempered by the infusion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) R&D funding during the depths of the downturn. After ARRA funding subsided, business R&D growth led a rebound in overall national R&D. Figure O-36 illustrates the expenditures by various R&D funding sectors over the 5 years ending in 2011 (figure O-36).

While R&D expenditures have recovered to some extent, the deviation from the overall long-term trend remains discernible in the data. Adjusted for inflation (in 2005 dollars), R&D expenditures in the United States for 2011 ($374.4 billion) were about the same as in 2008 ($374.5 billion).


[8] In these data, articles are attributed to different U.S. academic institutions only when the authors are from different universities or colleges, not when they come from different units of the same university or college (e.g., the engineering school and the economics department). In contrast, chapter 5 treats all articles whose authors report different institutional addresses as instances of interinstitutional collaboration, even when the addresses are part of the same university. Using the less stringent chapter 5 collaboration indicator, the increase in the proportion of U.S. academic articles involving interinstitutional collaboration shows a similar trend, rising from 34% in 1990 to 51% in 2012. International data in the overview use the chapter 5 collaboration indicator; international data unifying different addresses that can be considered part of the same institution are not currently available.
[9] Full-time, tenure-track faculty positions as either senior or junior faculty continue to be the norm in academic doctoral employment. Such positions constituted about 90% of academic doctoral positions in the early 1970s but had dropped to about 80% by the mid-1990s and to about 70% by 2010.
[10] The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education considers doctorate-granting universities that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year to be research universities. The 2010 Carnegie Classification includes three subgroups of research universities based on the level of research activity: very high research activity (108 institutions), high research activity (99 institutions), and doctoral/research universities (90 institutions).