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Federal higher-ed R&D funding jumps over $3 billion for the first time since 2011

January 12, 2023
By: Conor Gowder

New fiscal year (FY) 2021 Higher Education Research & Development (HERD) survey data released by the National Science Foundation (NSF) reveals a $3.4 billion (4%) increase in research and development (R&D) spending by institutions of higher education ($86.5 to $89.9 billion), driven almost entirely by a decades high federal government R&D funding increase of $3 billion.

The FY 2021 HERD is a survey of all 910 universities and colleges granting a bachelor’s degree or higher that also had R&D expenditures of at least $150,000 in FY 2020. Institutions that reported less than $1 million in R&D expenditures in the prior fiscal year were allowed to submit a “short-form” version of the survey; this made up 262 of the 910. While the 262 institutions were excluded from much of NSF’s provided tables and analyses, they only make up around $149 million – approximately 0.2% – of total higher-ed R&D expenditures.

The HERD survey collects a variety of data that shows the diversity of R&D investments in higher-ed; by source of funding (see above figure), the federal government provides the most funding for higher-ed R&D activities, followed by Institutional funds.

While FY 2021 is the first year since FY 2011 that federal funding grew by over $3 billion, its contribution has been on a steady uptrend since 2014, having grown approximately 29.5% during the 8-year period (approximately 20.7% growth over the past 10 years of available data). Similarly, institutional funds have steadily grown over the past decade, up 78.7% since 2011.

State and local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and all other sources of higher-ed R&D funding have remained fairly stagnant, although slowly increasing, over the past decade – especially when compared to federal and institutional funds.

The HERD survey also categorizes R&D expenditures by field, with science accounting for the largest amount ($67.6 billion), followed by engineering ($13.7 billion) and other non-science and engineering fields ($5 billion).

Within the field of science, the life sciences had the largest R&D spending, followed by the physical sciences; Engineering R&D was spread more evenly, with the most going toward “Electrical, electronic, and communications engineering” and “not elsewhere classified.” Refer to the above interactive tree map and/or HERD’s data release for more detailed information.

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