4 things CROs can learn from the Higher Ed R&D survey

Expert Insight

4 things CROs can learn from the Higher Ed R&D survey

How much money is actually invested in higher ed research? Accounting for all of the research occurring at higher ed institutions across the country is a daunting and difficult task, but each year the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics attempts to do just that. Its Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey collects information on annual R&D expenditures from U.S. colleges and universities. From this survey we can not only look at how institutions measure up against each other, but also at trends in areas like funding sources and fields of study.

The most recent annual survey was published in late 2017 and includes information on the 2016 fiscal year (July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016). This survey includes self-reported data from 902 public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions that grant a bachelor’s degree or higher and had research expenditures of at least $150,000 in FY 2016. The majority of data tables that review expenditures across areas like field of study, agency, and funding source are based on the information provided by 640 institutions that reported at least $1M in R&D in FY 2016.

With over 80 data tables, there are endless possible analyses—but we distilled four takeaways about federal funding trends and how chief research officers (CROs) can use this information.

1. Non-federal sources continue growth trajectory, federal expenditures declining in share

The graph above, which you may have seen at URF meetings, shows the shows the change in university research funding by source since 2010. It’s easy to see just how much non-federal funding has grown as federal funding remains somewhat stagnant. While federal funding slightly increased in FY 2016, its share of all R&D expenditures continues to drop, accounting for about 54% in FY 2016. If this trend continues, federal funding will account for less than half of expenditures by 2019.

The largest source of growth continues to be institutional funds. These numbers are self-reported so changes in accounting methods can sometimes explain large increases in expenditures for an individual institution. But at this rate of growth, the data indicates institutions are making large and potentially unsustainable investments in research.

Funding from nonprofit organizations accounted for the largest area of growth with a 9% increase (totaling $394M) over nonprofit funding from the previous year. As institutions increase their pursuit of non-federal funding, they need to support and train their faculty on how to talk about their research with non-traditional funders in a more outcomes-focused way. Part of this year’s URF research focused on training faculty to talk with the media, but with the media—these skills translate to non-traditional funders as well.

2. Funding from most federal agencies grew, but NSF remained stagnant

CROs frequently tell us diversifying their funding is a top priority. While a component of that is growing industry partnerships and nonprofit funding, most CROs also want to diversify within federal sources—moving away from reliance on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. Data from this HERD survey may indicate potential newer federal sources.

From FY 2015 to FY 2016, the largest percent increases in expenditures were as follows:

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): 8%
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): 5%
  • U.S. Department of Defense (DOD): 4%
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): 3%
  • U.S. Department of Energy (DOE): 3%

The only agency not to grow, and actually slightly decline, was NSF whose expenditures decreased by about $4M (0.10%). Over the course of this year we’ve seen the fights in Congress over budgets and funding cuts, with large proposed cuts to both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF. These threats underscore how important it is for CROs to not only think about diversifying federal funding but also put new support initiatives in place to help their faculty compete for and win grants from different agencies. One way CROs have begun to do this is through cluster hire initiatives that allow them to create larger, multidisciplinary research teams and bring in faculty who advance institutional rather than just departmental priorities.

3. Science fields remain the largest recipients of federal funding, but non-science and engineering (Non-S&E) fields saw the most growth

Scientific fields, as opposed to engineering and non-science and engineering (non-S&E), remain the largest recipient of federal funds. In FY 2016, over $31M of the $38M (80%) went to that type of research. However, compared to funding levels in 2010, both engineering and non-S&E have seen increases of about 15%, while science has only increased about 1%. In FY 2016, non-S&E fields saw the largest percent increase in funding, with an almost 5% increase from FY 2015. With the growth in this area, CROs should consider how to increase their support of non-S&E faculty and to boost the number engaged in federally funded research.

4. Federal and non-federal funding for applied research is growing

Both higher ed and the federal government remain the largest players in basic research. A recent NSF report highlighted that higher ed institutions perform 49% of all U.S. basic research, totaling about $83B in funding. Yet since 2010 the amount of basic research funding as a percentage of all federal funding has slowly decreased, from about 68% in FY 2010 to roughly 64% in FY 2016. Over that same period, funding for applied research has grown from about 25% of federal funding to 28%. Similar trends occurred with non-federal funding, where applied research accounts for about 28% of all non-federally funded R&D. With these growth patterns in mind, CROs should consider how to support and encourage faculty to submit more applied proposals. Given their high internal investments in applied funding, industry partnerships might be the most lucrative source of growth.

Boost the value of industry partnerships

These insights focus only on direct takeaways from the numbers. While the survey has its limitations, it can help provide additional evidence in support of the trends that we’ve anecdotally heard. We encourage CROs to think beyond the numbers, support faculty in pursuing traditional funding sources, teach faculty how to communicate their research to diverse stakeholder, and encourage faculty in all disciplines to seek extramural funding.

Prepare faculty for media conversations

To help CROs and their communications staff prepare faculty to better communicate their research to external audiences, download our Effective Media Conversations tool.


Select your institution type to get started

Institution Selector