Federal Spending on Academic Research Continued Downward Trend in 2007

August 25, 2008

Washington — Total spending on academic scientific research grew slightly in 2007 even as the the subtotal financed by the federal government fell, after inflation was factored in, according to a new report. Colleges and other providers made up the difference from their own pockets — but they weren’t happy about it.

The federal government is the largest source of funds for academic research, and the 2007 fiscal year represented the second straight year of decline after inflation, according to the report, which was issued by the National Science Foundation. The federal total was $30.44-billion, a net drop of 1.6 percent compared with 2006. Such a two-year decline had never before occurred since the NSF began tracking those figures, in 1972.

But overall spending on academic research totaled $49.43-billion in 2007, an increase of 0.8 percent after inflation. Academic institutions increased their own spending by nearly 7 percent, for a total of $9.70-billion.

Contributions from industry also surged, by 11 percent, to $2.67-billion. Corporate spending has now more than made up for dips in three consecutive years, from 2001 to 2004.

The numbers add up to a continuation of a trend that universities have decried: The burden of paying for research is slowly shifting away from the federal government and toward them and other sources. Some observers also worry that the growth in industry money will distort the agendas of academic researchers and fuel restrictions on scholarly publishing, although that money remains a small share of the total.

It’s too soon to know yet whether the next president will ride to the rescue. Sen. Barack Obama has proposed doubling federal spending on basic research; Sen. John McCain also wants to expand research in energy and climate change but has emphasized tax credits to pay for it. But after a new president is inaugurated, in January, he could take several months before unveiling detailed spending proposals for the 2009 fiscal year and beyond. —Jeffrey Brainard