State Budget Cuts for Research Universities Imperil Competitiveness, Report Says

January 17, 2012

States have cut funds for public research universities by 20 percent in constant dollars from 2002 to 2010, according to a report issued on Tuesday by the National Science Foundation.

The report, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2012," is a compendium almost 600 pages long of scientific trends in the United States and around the world. The agency releases such data every two years.

The findings in this year's report demonstrate a continuing trend in scientific innovation. While countries like China and India have increased their spending on technology and education, the United States has found itself hamstrung by a weakened economy since 2008.

Adjusted for inflation, the drop in state funds for the top 101 public research universities in the United States from 2002 to 2010 was 10 percent, with nearly three-quarters of the universities losing some state support.

Despite those drops in state financing, enrollment at research institutions continued to grow. State funds per enrolled student dropped from $10,195 in 2002 to $8,157 in 2010, in constant dollars.

"Following the two recessions that bookended the past decade, states had serious budget shortfalls," Ray M. Bowen, chairman of the National Science Board, said in a written statement. "But the decline in support for postsecondary education, especially public research universities, is a cause for great concern as we examine the condition of U.S. global competitiveness." The board is the governing body for the foundation.

The report also says that Asia is quickly outpacing the United States in the number of science and engineering degrees awarded. China, in particular, has seen an explosion in the number of students studying engineering. In 2008 students in the United States earned approximately 4 percent of the world's engineering degrees, while students in Asia accounted for 56 percent of the degrees. Almost one-third of all undergraduate degrees earned in China were in engineering.

Another cause for concern, says the report, is that a large portion of doctoral degrees at American universities are awarded to foreign students. In 2009, 44 percent of American doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering were awarded to temporary visa holders, and 57 percent of engineering doctorates were awarded to foreign students.

While spending on research and development has increased globally over the past decade, such expenditures in the United States fell from 38 percent of the worldwide total to 31 percent. In comparison, China's R&D spending increased from 22 percent as recently as 2007 to 28 percent in 2009.

Reason for Optimism

Applied research and development in the United States suffered a loss of private backing as well. From 2008 to 2009, as industry funds for applied R&D dropped by $7-billion, federal funds increased by $4-billion, largely because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus legislation championed by President Obama. Federal funds for R&D have more than doubled over the past 20 years, with more than half of that money going toward defense, yet the United States has struggled to keep up with the growth of research and development in Asia. 

 Universities and colleges serve a dual role, as the main source of basic research in the United States and as the training ground for new researchers. Academic research and development, which accounts for more than half of the nation's total basic research, has also seen a dip in industry support, from 7 percent to 6 percent. Still, federal funds and institutions' own coffers—the two main sources of support for academic R&D—have remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, says the report.

Education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, is regarded as a crucial cog in an economy increasingly driven by innovation. And there is some reason for optimism in the United States, as students' math scores on national assessments have shown improvement, but American 15-year-olds tend to score lower in math than do their international counterparts.

In higher education, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States has increased by more than half in the past two decades, with STEM degrees accounting for a third of the total. The report also says, among other findings on the STEM fields in higher education, that:

  • Almost one in five Americans who received a doctorate from 2005 to 2009 had earned college credit from a community or other two-year college.
  • In 2009, 45 percent of graduates who received a science or engineering doctorate had student-loan debt.
  • Women have earned half of all science and engineering bachelor's degrees, and have earned 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, since the late 1990s. On average, men earn more bachelor's degrees in the computer sciences, engineering, and physics, while women earn more degrees in biology, chemistry, psychology, and the social sciences.
  • In 2009 the federal government gave more financial support to graduate students in biology, physics, and engineering than to those in the computer sciences, mathematics, psychology, and the social sciences.