The University of Minnesota system moved up one notch to 10th among all public and private universities and eighth among public universities in spending on research and development in science and engineering in 2009. This is the fourth year in a row that the U has moved up in rank nationwide.
About $741 million was spent last year across the five campuses of the university system, up 8.5 percent from 2008 and up nearly 50 percent since 2002 when the system spent less than $500 million. Science and engineering research represents about three-fourths of all research spending in the university system, according to university officials.
From 2002 to 2005, R&D spending on science and engineering grew 3.6 percent but accelerated since then, growing an average of 7.8 percent, according, to the annual National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges for 2009. Since 2005 when it ranked 16th nationwide, the university’s spending on R&D has grown more rapidly than all but one other institution among the top 20, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tim Mulcahy, University of Minnesota vice president for research, credits much of the growth to a strategic plan put in place in 2005 that identified areas “where we would have strength and competitive advantage… lead[ing] to this kind of improvement.” He also credits the high caliber faculty who “bought in” to the strategy and attracted funding. “They do a great job. What you’re seeing is their real commitment…to field competitive grants.”
Areas targeted for research emphasis include nanotechnology, math and computer science, agriculture and health sciences, including bioengineering, infectious disease and neuroscience research, Mulcahy said.
The U also has streamlined its grant application processes and provided funding for some pilot research. Mulcahy said early funding shows that the institution “has skin in the game” to establish feasibility for new ideas before researchers seek external funding. In 2009, the U received $95 million in royalties and licensing agreements from research that’s been commercialized, a portion of which gets reinvested into new research efforts.
Starting with budget cuts in the mid 1990s, the U’s research funding began to lag peer institutions, Mulcahy said. While recognizing the state’s current financial challenge, Mulcahy argued that it’s important to work with the business community as well as state officials to restore the status the U held 25 years ago as a premier research institution.
“Other states around us are going to town. Minnesota is not the only state with a budget crisis,” he said, pointing to Michigan as an example. “They identified funding priorities in research and engineering. Minnesota needs to do something similar.
“I think it’s going to fuel the state’s [economic] recovery. Research and student accessibility should be top priorities. It can’t be the state alone, the University alone or the corporate community alone,” he added.
About $391 million of the University of Minnesota spending in 2009 was from the federal government, a 7 percent increase over the 2008 figure of $364 million in 2008.
While the U has received approximately $250 million in federal stimulus funds, according to the government web site tracking stimulus spending, not all of that funding is for research. Little of the federal stimulus funding is reflected in the 2009 NSF total, according to U spokesman John Merritt, because of the timing when funds are actually spent. More of that spending will show up in 2010 and beyond, he said.