As the University vies to be a top three public research institution, a recent study shows the University may be further behind than expected.
A newly released internal report says the University is “no longer above average in a range of research funding metrics and has not been for quite some time.”
Despite nearly tripling its research spending between 1972 and 2004, accounting for inflation, the University has slipped from fourth to ninth compared to 13 self-identified competitor or “peer” universities.
Nationally, the University slid from 19th to 26th.
The University is falling behind because it ranks last in how much spending has grown over time, measuring only an average of 3.5 percent per year.
Comparatively, the fastest growing school in the group, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has increased its research spending by an average of 6.6 percent per year.
“Clearly, the University has been slipping behind its peers in research expenditures for at least the last decade (perhaps longer) and there is no evidence yet of catching up,” the report states.
Worse yet, in the past 15 years, the rate of growth for University research spending has also dipped below the national average, actually receiving less money from both industry sources and state and local government sources.
Report author and applied economics professor Philip Pardey, who specializes in science and technology policy, said that while overall decline in growth from all major sources – federal, state and local government, and industry and institutional sources – contributed to the University’s current predicament, in the end, the minimal state support may have hurt the most.
“(The state) is a part of problem, but not the sole problem,” he said. “State support is not only below average (in growth), but it’s shrinking.”
And unlike recent decline in industry support, which is part of a national trend, most states have been upping their support for academic research spending, Pardey said.
In 1990 the state funded 16.2 percent of the University’s total research spending. By 2004, that share was 10.3 percent.
Also hesitating to call diminished state funding the biggest reason why the University has been outpaced by all of its main competitors, vice president for Research Timothy Mulcahy said its role is significant.
“We are not trying to point the finger entirely at the state,” he said. “Although they think of our budget on a biennial cycle, changes in funding on the biennial cycle can have long-term effects on the University.”
State Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said, “It is a concern if we are losing ground at our research university Ö We want to have a top-notch research university.”
Pogemiller, who hasn’t yet read the report but is familiar with it, said he would like to hear the University’s take on the study, and should the University request more funding, he and several other legislators would be willing to help.
Though Pogemiller did not say why state funding for research has gone down, Pardey said, “It reveals to me, partly, a shift in priorities in the state government,” he said. “While state budgets continue to grow, the University’s part hasn’t grown much.”
During the 1990s, state and local government support for academic research in Minnesota dropped by an average of 0.8 percent per year, according to Pardey’s analysis.
Pardey said if current trends aren’t reversed soon, it will become increasingly difficult for the University to make up the ground it has lost, which does not bode well for either the school or the state.
A diminishing research ranking will make it harder to attract both top-level students and faculty to the University, he said.
And it could also discourage faculty from coming to the University as well.
“Faculty is very mobile these days, and they’re going to the place where they feel they’re going to get the best support for their research,” he said.
Both Pardey and Mulcahy also said the state has a huge economic stake in a strong research university.
“On the economic side, if we don’t keep research and innovation strong, companies will go elsewhere,” Mulcahy said.
Pardey said academic research fulfilled by the University is integral to Minnesota’s economic prosperity because it is by far the largest researcher in the state.
“The state has potential problems here because the University, unlike other states, accounts for 98 percent of all academic (research and development) in the state,” he said. “If we’re starting to fall behind in a state that has a pretty intensive knowledge-based economy, that raises substantial warning bells for me in terms of what the longer-term impacts might be.”
The University also often pursues research that is simultaneously riskier and potentially more rewarding than research private industries are willing to take on, Pardey said.
-Elena Rozwadowski contributed this report.