By the Numbers: Universities’ Research Spending, Licensing Revenue & Recruiting Research Talent

By Jeff Harris and Rick Skinner - Harris Search Associates, an IIC Partners member firm

The latest addition of THE CHRONICLE FOR HIGHER EDUCATION annual almanac of 2012 includes information about total research spending financed by the federal government ( as well as licensing revenues in FY 2010 ( for some of the nation’s universities.  They tell an intriguing story in their own right and may speak volumes to prospective candidates offered employment.

As higher education search specialists who focus on finding and recruiting talent for research-intensive universities, academic health and medical centers and university research parks, these data are particularly valuable because they speak to the extent of an institution’s commitment to research as well as skill at (and the opportunity for) using research and development to generate funding.  And when a university is seeking to attract the best researchers in a given field, the data can play a role throughout the recruitment, from gaining a willingness to consider a move to agreeing to interview to reaching consensus on the nature and extent of criteria by which the researcher’s performance will be assessed.

Candidates for posts such as vice president for research or commercialization/technology transfer or economic development will find thee data to be of interest for providing a sense of just how big a job she/he is considering given the low level of R&D federal funding.  Or a candidate may be concerned that the current high level of funding will be tough to maintain given all the uncertainty about federal and state support.

Consider the results that come from a few calculations of the Almanac data.  For the entire data set published by the Chronicle, the variation across institutions is extraordinary:

• Average revenue from licensing is nearly $12 million but ranges from a low of $1000 to nearly $180 million

• Total number of active licenses includes Stanford with 1,944 and numerous others with 1

• In FY 2010 MIT could point to 17 start-up companies, the University of Utah 18 and BYU 13 but a large number of institutions have none or 1

• New patent applications are as few as 2 and as many as Johns Hopkins’ 449, Caltech’s 415 and Penn’s 483

• Total research spending financed by the federal government spans a spectrum from $15 million to several universities’ $1 billion-plus and the University of California System with over $5 billion

What’s more substantial variation is apparent if you select a subset of universities – for example, AAU members for which the Almanac reports data.  The following compares averages for 98 of the organizations reported by the Chronicle who are not members of AAU and averages of the 48 AAU members.  

In some cases, the numerical contrast is most striking, but the overall impression one gains is of a “system” of higher education marked by much variation that reflects the purposely fragmented, very decentralized form of tertiary education in the US where state laws and institutional policies and practices often take precedence over anything else.  As a result, Ohio State, with three-quarters of $1 billion in federal spending reports just under $2 million licensing revenues for FY 2010, while its BigTen brethren – the University of Minnesota with less spending – reported $83.9 million in licensing revenues.

 A Comparison of Federal R&D Financing, Licensing and Patent Activity of Selected US Universities            

Indicator                                       Non-AAU (n=98)        AAU (n=48)

Licensing revenue                          $3.5 million             $27 million

Start-up companies                         2                             6

Licenses executed                          17                            53

Total active licenses                       97                           425

New patent applications                 33                           138

US patents issued                           12                            48

Total federal R&D spending            $22 million               $603 million

The Chronicle of Higher Education 2012 Almanac is the source of data on which these calculations were made.

Explanations for the differences are nearly as many as the differences themselves and more is required than a cursory glance to sort out the why’s and wherefore’s.  Yet most searches for research talent often come down to the need for decisions just when time is scarce and cursory glances are all that time permits.

Finally, these data assume even greater importance when an American university is seeking to recruit talent from abroad – a more frequent occurrence than just 5-6 years ago.  Presented with these lists, even a casual eye could not help but notice the remarkable variation in the various indicators.  Offered a chance to join an American university, the international candidate is likely to be at a university in a country where variation in institutional types, policies and practices – especially as these relate to research, intellectual property and the like – are more uniform than is the case in the US.  

As a result, it may be wise to take some time – that precious commodity – and provide an introduction to the complex ways American universities go about doing their work.  Without such an explanation, a candidate will likely draw her/his own conclusion that might well cost a university the talent wanted and needed.


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