Study of UChicago, Midwestern universities reveals short-term economic benefits of academic research

The long-term impact of basic research on human knowledge and society are generally well understood, but data to support the short-term economic and social benefits of federal funding of academic research and development have not been as easily quantified until recently. A joint report issued on April 3 by research administrators from nine major Midwestern universities, including the University of Chicago, provides the first detailed look at federal science funding and the short-term economic activity it generates.

The aim of the study, conducted by UChicago and the universities of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota (Twin Cities), Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin, is to inform policymakers on the processes of science and the short-term consequences of changes in funding. These universities are part of the 15-member Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), a consortium of Big Ten member universities plus the University of Chicago. CIC institutions collectively receive 8 to 10 percent of all federal research dollars.

“This report provides the first detailed data about how we can actually trace public research dollars and demonstrate far-reaching effects on the economy, including support of students, postdocs and research staff," said Roy Weiss, Deputy Provost for Research and a report author. The report also provides information on the purchase of diverse goods and services, and shows where funding is spent.

Of the $7 billion in combined 2012 research and development funding received by the nine universities that authored the report, $1 billion was spent on U.S. goods and services. Of those expenditures more than 16 percent went to vendors in the university's home county, 16 percent more went to the institution's home state and the balance went to vendors across the United States. An article about the CIC report appears in April 4 issue of Science.

“Together the CIC institutions were able to overcome obstacles that federal funding agencies could not do on their own,” said Weiss. “With the knowledge of some very talented scientists, we were able to lay the foundation to trace subsequent research expenditures.”

The report also dispels the notion that federal funding primarily supports faculty. The study found that 80 percent of the individuals supported by federal funding (which accounted for 56 percent of total 2012 funding) were graduate and undergraduate students, research staff, staff scientists and postdoctoral fellows. Only one in five of the workers supported by federal grants were faculty.

The percent of the research workforce supported by federal funding varies greatly by agency, the data found. Of the 30 funding agencies included in the study, the largest funder, the “National Institutes of Health, supports almost 40 percent of the individuals working on projects; the National Science Foundation supports just over 21 percent; and the Department of Education supports under 10 percent.”

Similarly, the degree to which workers are compensated varies widely by agency. For instance, NIH dollars pay for more than 50 percent of federally funded postdoctoral fellows, but only 24 percent of graduate students and 22 percent of undergraduates. NSF grants, however, pay fewer than 20 percent of federally funded postdoctoral fellows, over 35 percent of graduate students and 22 percent of undergraduates.

”The consequences of funding cuts or the benefits of increases,” noted the authors of the Science article, “would fall disproportionately on trainees and staff segments of the scientific workforce, who constitute much of our future capacity for cutting-edge R&D.”