Seventeen of the 20 top universities for engineering R and D expenditures are public institutions.
Where is cutting-edge engineering research being conducted in the U.S.? What are our leading universities for sponsored research in engineering subfields such as chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering?
One answer to those questions can be found in the Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey, released in December by the National Science Foundation (NSF). That survey measures the dollars spent annually on research and development (R and D) at American colleges and universities.
The latest HERD Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, presents R&D expenditure data for fiscal year 2021, collected from 91o universities and colleges that grant a bachelor’s degree or higher and spent at least $150,000 in R&D in the prior fiscal year.
The HERD survey summarizes the federal, state, industry and other funds a university spends on all its research activities, and it also breaks those expenditures out by ten major fields: computer and information sciences; engineering; geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences; life sciences; mathematics and statistics; physical sciences; psychology; social sciences; other sciences; and non-science and engineering (fields like education, law and the humanities).
Total research and development (R and D) expenditures at American colleges and universities topped $89 billion in fiscal year 2021, an increase of more than $3.4 billion (4%) over FY 2020.
Of the total R and D expenditures in FY 21, $14.3 billion was in engineering, more than 60% of which came from federal agencies ($8.7 billion). The top 20 universities, ranked by total engineering R and D in FY 21 were:
Johns Hopkins U. $1.238 billion
Georgia Institute of Technology $839.071 million
SUNY, Polytechnic Institute $462.562 million
Texas A&M U., College Station and Health Science Center $385.656 million
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $382.569 million
Pennsylvania State U., University Park and Hershey Medical Center $375.667 million
Purdue U. $255.469 million
U. Texas $279.730 million
U. Michigan $279.682 million
Utah State U. $247.332 million
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State U. $246.965 million
U. Illinois $216.233 million
U. California, Berkeley $199.711 million
U. Dayton $180.158 million
U. Colorado $177.604 million
U. California, San Diego $177.560 million
North Carolina State U. $172.900 million
Ohio State U. $163.509 million
U. Washington $157.622 million
Wichita State U. $157.43 million
Total university expenditures topped $1 billion in six of the eight engineering subfields that are reported. Here are those subfields and the top five universities for R and D spending in each:
Electrical, electronic, and communications engineering: $3.080 billion
Mechanical engineering: $1.882 billion
Bioengineering and biomedical engineering: $1.56 billion
Civil engineering: $1.482 billion
Aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering: $1.45 billion
Chemical engineering: $1.024 billion
Of the 20 top universities in total R and D engineering expenditures, 17 are public institutions (Hopkins, MIT and the U. of Dayton are private). That’s a very different distribution than is found in most college ranking systems where private institutions dominate. The leading institutions also show substantial geographic diversity, with universities from all the major regions of the country represented.
Seven universities ranked in the top five in two or more of the engineering subfields that had $1 billion or more in expenditures: Georgia Tech (5), Johns Hopkins (4), Texas (3), MIT (2), Penn State (2), U. California, Berkeley (2) and U. California, San Diego (2). Seventeen different institutions were represented in the top five schools across those six subfields.
The diversity of institutions represented is a healthy sign. The advantage to having a wide range of institutions carry out funded research is that it allows for broad views and new ideas to be tested and applied.
Of course, a university’s engineering impact can be measured by several other indicators – publications in refereed journals; the number of PhD’s awarded; citation counts; scholarly awards; patents, licenses and the commercialization of intellectual property; and the post-degree careers of students. All of those outcomes are important forms of impact.
However, research expenditures have a particular value in evaluating an institution’s overall contributions to a field of study. Because the largest share of funded grants are doled out only after a competitive process that involves peer review, R and D expenditures indicate a consensus about the value of the proposed research and a judgment about the work that’s most likely to advance fundamental understanding and useful applications.