US funding for university research continues to decline

Despite its world-leading research universities, the US ranks 28th out of 39 nations in university research funding.

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A recently released report reveals that the US continues to fall further behind world leaders in university research funding and to recover, it needs to grow support by $45 billion annually with stronger incentives for businesses in order to increase investments. Research universities play a critical role in generating innovation-based economic growth and driving US-global innovation leadership.

The report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) revealed that despite its world-leading research universities, the US has slid to 28th place out of 39 nations in government funding as a share of GDP, with the 12 leading governments investing more than double the US investment. The U.K. is ranked 25th.

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The ITIF report compiled data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and National Science Foundation (NSF) to reach the findings. ITIF President Rob Atkinson said, "By and large, funding is based on the quality of the research proposal and research team, as well as the alignment between the university and national priorities. MIT [The Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Caltech [California  Institute of Technology] receive more money per faculty member than a mid-tier state university, for example."

The report recommends that the US significantly grow university research funding and provide stronger incentives for businesses to also increase their research investments.

"Other nations are increasing their investments in university research because they understand the critical role research universities play in generating innovation-based economic growth," said Atkinson, an author of the report, in a release. "Research drives innovation, and innovation drives long-run economic growth, creating jobs and improving living standards in the process. The United States can't rest on its laurels. To once again lead the world in innovation, policymakers must make the necessary investments in university research."

And that funding for research is "certainly more focused on R&D. Many of them are more focused on areas like information technology and computer science," Atkinson said. 

Tech schools, he continued, fare better (If by technology you also include life-sciences, since a lot of federal support for universities goes to support life-sciences.). "If you mean IT/engineering, it's hard to say. Overall, everyone on average fares worse than they did a decade ago, since federal support, as share of GDP has fallen," Atkinson said. 

The report shows that, as of 2017, governments in the US collectively invested 0.2% of GDP on university research, and, that between 2011 and 2017, US government funding for university research as a share of GDP fell by nearly a quarter, 0.06% points. The US decline during this period is nearly unrivaled, with only Ireland and Estonia seeing larger funding reductions. On average, nations decreased 0.03 percent of GDP.

According to the report the Swiss government invests more than 3.7 times as much (0.76%) on funding university research as the United States, with Denmark just behind (0.72%t). Germany (0.36 percent), France (0.43%), and the United Kingdom (0.24%) all out-invest the United States.

The bulk of the responsibility, the report concludes, is on the US congress. Congress, the report recommends, should commit to increasing university research support by $45 billion per year, which would place the US among the top seven nations in the world in funding for university research. Congress should also expand the energy-related collaborative research and experimentation tax credit to apply to any field of university research investment—not just energy research—made by businesses.

"The private sector alone does not and cannot invest in university research funding at the levels society needs," said Caleb Foote, co-author and ITIF research assistant. "The university system plays an important role in filling the gap between the current levels of private R&D and the optimal levels for economic growth. Without public investment, the rates of economic growth, job creation, and improvements in living-standards won't meet its full potential."

As for the private sector, Atkinson said," They are investing, but companies on average invest less in basic and applied research and more in later-stage development. Healthy innovation economies need all three." He added that leading private sectors assisting in funding research programs include, significantly, drug companies and IT firms. 

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