Public research universities are responsible for conducting much of the nation’s
core research in science, medicine, engineering, and technology. During
and after World War II, the nation’s federal research and development was
performed primarily by national laboratories and industrial research laboratories,
including those supported by Bell Telephone, Xerox, and Hewlett Packard. But many
of these great industrial laboratories have since shut their doors, and American
companies have formed partnerships with research universities to fill the gap.6
The discoveries made by researchers at public research universities have significantly
advanced our shared knowledge and improved the health and lives of the public. In
all, scientists at public research universities have been awarded fifty-three Nobel
Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine, and fifteen Nobel Prizes
in Economic Sciences.7
Each public research university can claim breakthroughs made on its campus that
have improved health, enhanced quality of life, and advanced new industries:
- Important antibiotics, including Streptomycin, were discovered at Rutgers University.8
- Life-saving safety devices, including retractable locking seatbelts, were created
at the University of Minnesota.9
- The CRISPR gene editing system was coinvented by a researcher at University of California,
Berkeley, receiving the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year Award from the editors of
- East Texas’s blueberry industry and increased watermelon production resulted
from agricultural research conducted at Texas A&M University’s AgriLife
Research center. The center’s research has an estimated regional economic
impact of more than $1.2 billion.11
- The lithium-ion battery, a critical component of smartphones and tablets, was developed
by faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.12
- Touch screens were developed at the University of Kentucky, and multi-scrolling
capabilities originated at the University of Delaware.14
- Our social security system was developed using social science research conducted
at the University of Wisconsin.15
- The advancement of modern industries based on information technology, nanotechnology,
and biotechnology that drive our high-tech economy rely on basic research conducted
at our public research universities.16
Reflecting their position in the nation’s research enterprise, public research
universities receive more than half of all government, industry, and foundation
investment in basic and applied research. In 2014, the combined expenditures of
public and private universities on research and development (R&D) totaled $67.1
billion, of which $63.7 billion was spent in science and engineering fields.17 Public universities accounted
for 66 percent ($44.7 billion) of all university R&D expenditures, and public
research universities classified as Very High Research Activity accounted for 46
percent ($31.2 billion) of all R&D expenditures.18
Funding from Academic Institutions excludes research funds spent from multipurpose
accounts. Distribution totals 101 percent due to rounding. Source:
National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (Arlington,
Va.: National Science Foundation, 2016), Appendix Table 5–3, “Sources of S&E
R&D Funding for Public and Private Academic Institutions: Selected Years, FYs
A Case Study: Federally Funded University-Based Research on Food Safety
There were approximately forty-eight million cases of food-borne illnesses in
2011, causing—according to conservative estimates—a $14
billion burden on the U.S. economy. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
funded a pilot project headquartered at Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate what
food research is being done, where, by whom, and to what effect.19 The resulting data sets
show how research investments bring about new food safety measures, and the impact
that these innovations have on policies governing safe growth, processing, and distribution
of food. These connections also show the influence that research dollars have on
other outcomes, including student job placement, publication of research articles,
and number of patents filed.20
Public Research Universities and the Grand Challenges
Inspired by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s 21st
Century Grand Challenges program,21
public research universities are investing in research programs to address our planet’s
most pressing problems.
- The Indiana University
is investing $300 million
in addressing challenges that are critical to its state but that can also have a
global impact, including health equity, climate change and human well-being, sustainable
water resources, environmental and human protection from chemicals, and precision
- The University of California
is investing $1 billion
over the next five years in a private fund dedicated to the development of large-scale
carbon-free energy solutions.23
- The University of Michigan
will spend $100 million
over the next five years on research and teaching related to data science and the
power of big data for the good of society.24
- In 2013, Texas A&M University
established an interdisciplinary Grand Challenges initiative that funds up to six
faculty teams each year to tackle global issues facing the environment, food, human
health, education, and the economy.
Each winning team receives $150,000 for two years of research.25
- Many public research universities are utilizing their interdisciplinary centers
and programs to gather perspectives from diverse disciplines, including the humanities,
to find fresh approaches to these challenges. For example, the University of California, Los Angeles Institute for Society
and Genetics is investigating how public participation transforms the
nature of discovery and innovation by bringing together scientists with philosophers,
anthropologists, law professors, ethnographers, and other social scientists and
humanists engaged in issues in biotechnology, genetics, and genomics.26
6 American Academy of
Arts & Sciences, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving
the American Dream (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts & Sciences,
7 Researchers were employed
at public research universities at the time the award was given. See Nobel Prize,
“Nobel Laureates and Research Affiliations,” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/universities.html.
8 Rutgers Waksman Institute
of Microbiology, “History,” https://www.waksman.rutgers.edu/about/history.
9 Steven John, “Ten
Ways U Research Affects You,” Minnesota Public Radio, February 2001, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/2001/02/universalu/topten/9_krations.html.
10 John Travis, “Making
the Cut,” Science [2015 Breakthrough of the Year] 350 (6267): 1456–1457.
11 Texas A&M AgriLife
Research, “Research Impacts,” http://agriliferesearch.tamu.edu/about-agrilife-research/research_impacts/.
12 Association of American
Universities, “Riding the Wave of Federal Investment: How Federal Research
Made the iPad Possible,” January 10, 2014, http://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=14900.
13 National Academy
of Inventors, “NAI Fellows,” http://www.academyofinventors.org/fellows.asp.
14 Association of American
Universities, “Riding the Wave of Federal Investment.”
15 U.S. Social Security
Administration, “Agency History—Research Note #8: The Special Role of
the University of Wisconsin in the History of Social Security,” https://www.ssa.gov/history/wiscrole.html.
16 Jonathan R. Cole,
The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National
Role, Why It Must Be Protected (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 205.
17 National Science
Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (Arlington, Va.: National
Science Foundation, 2016). Five percent of all R&D (about $3–4 billion)
is spent on non–science and engineering projects, including business management,
communications, journalism and library science, humanities, law, social work, and
visual and performing arts.
18 National Science
Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Higher Education
Research and Development Survey, Fiscal Year 2014, “Ranked by All R&D
19 The USDA-funded
research team at Georgia Tech University: Kaye Husbands Fealing, Georgia Tech; Sandra
Hoffmann, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Stan Johnson, National Center for Food
and Agricultural Policy; John L. King, University of California, Davis; Julia Lane,
New York University; Christina Jones, American Institutes for Research; Yeong Jae
Kim, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Evgeny Klochikin, American Institutes for Research.
20 UMETRICS@IRIS (Institute
for Research on Innovation and Science). IRIS principal investigators include James
Evans, University of Chicago; Julia Lane, NYU; Barbara McFadden Allen, CIC (Committee
on Institutional Cooperation); Jason Owen-Smith, University of Michigan; and Bruce
Weinberg, Ohio State University. Visit
http://iris.isr.umich.edu/ for more information.
21 White House Office
of Science and Technology Policy, “21st Century Grand Challenges,”
22 Indiana University,
“Grand Challenges Program,” http://www.grandchallenges.iu.edu.
23 UC Office of the
President, “UC Only University to Join Coalition Led by Bill Gates to Invest
in Climate Solutions,” University of California, November 29, 2015, http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/press-room/UC-only-university-join-coalition-led-bill-gates-invest-climate-solutions.
24 Michigan News, “U-Michigan
Launches $100 Million Data Science Initiative,” September 8, 2015, http://www.ns.umich.edu/new/releases/23105-u-michigan-launches-100-million-data-science-initiative.
25 Texas A&M University
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, “The Grand Challenges,” http://grandchallenges.tamu.edu/home/;
and Angel Futrell, “Grants Awarded and Mini-Symposia Selected for 2016,”
Texas A&M University, January 25, 2016, http://grandchallenges.tamu.edu/2016/01/25/grants-awarded-and-mini-symposia-selected-for-2016/.
26 See the UCLA Institute
for Society and Genetics at http://socgen.ucla.edu.