A new study shows that university research funding—and the work it supports—is vital to the US economic ecosystem. Credit: Stan Leary, University of Georgia, Flickr. (Creative Commons License) 

In the past weeks, we’ve covered every twist and turn in the (sometimes international) roller-coaster ride that is research funding—from the decline in spending at the United States’ federally-funded research centers and a $1.5-billion boost to Canadian university research, to Obama’s proposed appropriations for the 2015 budget (here and here) and China’s plan to propel its economy forward with R&D.

Now, a new study indicates that university research (and the funding that supports it) is more than fodder for headlines—rather, it’s a “key component of the US economic ecosystem.”

Conducted by researchers from the American Institutes for Research, Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and Ohio State University, the study, published in Science, found that the economic impact of science funding extends far past the scientific community.

“The process of scientific research supports organizations and jobs in many of the high skill sectors of our economy,” write the researchers. Several key findings, detailed below, explain why.

    • University research = jobs. You know what they say about those who assume. The majority of workers supported by federal research funds are not, as many incorrectly assume, faculty members; rather, the study found that fewer than one in five are faculty researchers. According to the CIC release detailing the results, “Workers with many different skill levels are employed, and these are not primarily faculty.” Instead, one in three is a student—grad or undergrad—and one in ten a post-doctoral fellow.
    • University research = spending that stretches beyond state lines. The new dataset used by the research team revealed that universities receiving federal research funds spend those dollars throughout the United States. In fact, close to 70 percent is spent outside of the institution’s home state. Expenditures with US vendors and subcontractors (“everything from test tubes to telescopes and microscopes to gene sequencing machines”) in 2012 tallied almost $1 billion—15 percent of which were located in the university’s home county, 15 percent in the home state, and the balance (that whopping 70 percent) devoted to vendors located across the country. 
    • University research = spending that benefits companies of all sizes. The impact of research spending reaches enterprises both big and small. Many of the vendors were large companies, but the study’s authors note, “we were struck by how many are small, niche, high-technology companies…” 
    • University research = scientific solutions to real-world problems outside the research community (and the data to support it!). It’s no secret that the work of scientists and engineers impacts the everyday life of every living being. (See also: “Google veep: Advances in science, engineering vital in meeting global energy challenges.”) But that doesn’t mean we always recognize it, which is where the study’s detailed data gives applying such work the assist. “Research universities are dedicated to the discovery of new knowledge,” says co-author Roy Weiss, deputy provost for research at the University of Chicago. “This study reports the first cooperative endeavor by multiple universities to evaluate the benefit of government investment in research. In addition to making the world a better place by virtue of these discoveries, we now have data to support the overall benefits to society.”

“The main purpose of science funding isn’t as a jobs or stimulus program, but this study shows there are also major short-term economic benefits to science funding,” says Bruce Weinberg, co-author and professor of economics at Ohio State.

Regardless, with findings that show the vitality of research funding to the economic ecosystem, it’s hard to think that this new research won’t be an integral part of any effort to increase (or, at the very least, maintain) support for university research funds in the States.

“This study provides evidence that while science is complicated, it is not magic. It is productive work. Scientific endeavors employ people. They use capital inputs. Related economic activity occurs immediately,” adds Julia Lane, lead researcher and senior managing economist at the American Institutes for Research. “Policy makers need to have an understanding of how science is produced when making resource allocation decisions, and this study provides that information in a reliable and current fashion.”

The paper is “Science funding and short-term economic activity” (DOI:10.1126/science.1250055).

Are you surprised by the results? Tell us why or why not below.

Feature image credit: Stan Leary, University of Georgia, Flickr (Creative Commons License).