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Breakdown of federally financed higher-ed R&D for FY 2021

January 26, 2023
By: Conor Gowder

A previous Digest article gave a broad overview of the most recent survey of Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) for FY 2021 (the most recent data available), including a breakdown of what field of studies receive the most R&D funding. The survey showed that the federal government funds the bulk of higher-ed R&D, and looking at each of its agencies can shed light on investment priorities. Within the federal government, Health and Human Services (HHS) funded the most higher-ed R&D activities by far (approximately $27.5 billion), followed by the Department of Defense (DoD; $7.4 billion) and National Science Foundation (NSF; $5.4 billion). A bulk of HHS funding went toward the life sciences ($24.2 billion), with engineering following behind at approximately $1 billion. DoD primarily funded engineering ($3.7 billion), followed by life sciences ($1.4 billion).

To put HHS’ $24.2 billion financing of higher-ed life sciences R&D into perspective, the higher-ed R&D financed by all other federal agencies in every field adds up to $21.6 billion — $2.6 billion less than HHS’ financing of life sciences alone, and $5.9 billion less than HHS’ total.

In FY 2021, total federal R&D expenditures were more than $165 billion, with approximately 29.7% ($49.1 billion) financing higher-ed R&D activities. DoD had the largest overall budget for R&D, accounting for 43.51% of the federal total — but just 14.98% of all federal higher-ed R&D expenditures — while HHS accounted for approximately 25.3% of all federal R&D and 56% of higher-ed specific R&D.

HHS and NSF directed the highest portions of their total R&D expenditures to higher-ed, dedicating 65.75% and 63.75% respectively (of $41.87 billion and $8.49 billion in total R&D appropriations respectively). USDA (45.79%), NASA (13.78%), the Department of Energy (DOE; 10.36%) and DoD (10.23%) all allocated over 10% of their R&D efforts towards higher-ed.

As a note, approximately $1.46 billion of DoD's $7.36 billion total higher-ed R&D funding (19.81%) went to Johns Hopkins University, home of the Applied Physics Laboratory (which had a total of $1.88 billion of federal funding in FY 2021).

higher ed, federal agency r&d, r&d