The University of Connecticut's main campus is Storrs file photo
Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 2.01.14 PM

Third part of a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

State officials have been trying for years to make the University of Connecticut one of the nation’s top public research universities.

“Connecticut is a great enough state to have a top research university that leads scientific discovery. Why should Michigan have one? Why should North Carolina have one? Why shouldn’t Connecticut have one?” UConn President Susan Herbst asked legislators three years ago when selling an initiative aimed at boosting research activity at the university. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Here, in graphical form, is a historical overview of research activity at UConn and UConn Health and how it compares to other schools across the country.

More money for research

While research activity took off at UConn and UConn Health between 1996 and 2007, it has realized small increases since then.

Through 2007, spending on research increased by an average $7.8 million each year, which means research spending grew much faster than inflation. Since then, spending has increased by $3.2 million a year, which means spending lagged behind inflation.

While federal funding is by far the largest revenue source for research at UConn, the university has increasingly relied on tuition and fees and other institutional funding to grow research.

While annual federal research funding has increased by $16.5 million since 2004, support from UConn’s budget for research has increased by $25.5 million.

Translation: Federal funding covered 61 percent of research activity at UConn 10 years ago compared to 56 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, institutional support covers 30 percent of research compared to 25 percent previously.

Federal spending on research skyrocketed during the 1990s and early 2000s. But in recent years, funding for research has been level and not kept pace with inflation. This has resulted in increased competition for federal grants.

“The competition is brutal now,” said Kevin Claffey, a professor in the department of cell biology at the UConn Health Center.

While grants from the Department of Defense account for half of all federal research and development dollars, UConn relies most heavily on grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health.

The university has also had major support from the state in helping to build new laboratories and other facilities, such as classrooms. Over the last 20 years, the state has spent $2.7 billion on construction projects to overhaul UConn and, later, the UConn Health Center.

Mixed results for research activity at UConn

More than two-thirds of research at UConn takes place within UConn’s School of Medicine, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering. Other colleges and departments play a much smaller role in research.

For example, the School of Business spent $3.7 million on research in 2015 compared to $30.5 million by the School of Engineering.

By department, psychiatry within the School of Medicine and educational psychology within the Neag School of Education are among the high performers.

How does UConn compare?

While UConn’s oft-touted U.S. News & World Report rankings have improved, its ratings that focus on research have slipped in recent years.

Most notably, the public university ranked 64th in overall spending on research among the public and private schools surveyed in 2005 by the National Science Foundation. By 2014, the school was in 82nd place for the $258 million it spent, though nine of the schools ranked better than UConn had not been included in the previous ratings.

Among public universities, UConn and UConn Health ranked 54th for their spending in 2014, a standing that has remained pretty steady over the last decade. And it doesn’t look like that rating is going to shift much when the 2015 ratings are released later this fall, since the university increased spending on research by just $1.3 million between 2014 and 2015.

Universities surveyed report spending $67.2 billion on research in fiscal 2014. In the field of life sciences – which accounts for more than half of overall research activity with $37.9 billion spent – UConn ranks 81st.

In engineering, with nearly $11 billion spent, UConn ranks 70th. Of the $4.6 billion spent on physical sciences, UConn is in 107th place. Among all of the fields of study, UConn ranks the best in psychology, in eighth place.

Fred Carstensen, a professor in UConn’s School of Business, said disparities in various colleges’ research activity results from the fact that university leaders do not mandate that all departments link tenure decisions or merit bonuses to landing external research funding.

“How does UConn reward faculty that land external funding?” he said. “There is no obvious research funding pipeline. We aren’t functioning like a research university.”

But UConn’s Vice President for Research Jeffrey Seemann says tenure decisions, and how strongly they are linked to landing external funding and being published, are appropriately left to each college dean and the university’s provost.

“For some disciplines [research funding] is an expectation – engineering, the sciences, etc. – and the college puts a very high weight on that,” he said.

College deans determine what factors to consider in merit pay bonuses.

Couple that with the reality that researchers are left with only a fraction of grants they win because such a large portion must go to pay for the state’s huge unfunded pension promises and the university getting it’s cut, and Carstensen explains it’s a bad model to drive growth in research.

It’s clear the UConn Health Center in Farmington is the enterprise weighing the university’s overall rankings down – not the school’s main academic campus in Storrs.

While spending on research at UConn Health declined by 24 percent between 2003 and 2012; research at Storrs increased by 29 percent, reports the Center for Measuring University Performance (CMUP) in its most recent annual report on top research universities.

And since then the disparity has increased.

Research activity at UConn Health has decreased by another $15.8 million between 2012 and 2016, university officials report. At Storrs, research increased by $18.3 million during that time.

Research activity at UConn and UConn Health
Rank for total research spending in 2012 Rank for total federal research spending in 2012 Change in research spending between 2003 and 2012, adjusted for inflation Change in ranking between 2003 and 2012
UConn Health center 105 98 – $11.01 million – 17
UConn 81 78 + $11.29 million + 9
The Top American Research Universities 2014 Annual Report, The Center for Measuring University Performance

It has also been a mixed bag when it comes to winning grants from the National Institutes of Health, the university system’s largest revenue source for research.

While UConn Health experienced huge increases in the number of research grants and funding from NIH between 1992 and 2003, funding since then has declined. Meanwhile, funding for UConn Storrs has slowly increased.

It is hard to measure how UConn and UConn Health compare to other schools in winning NIH grants because the data is inconsistent about whether schools with medical schools are reported together as one institution or not.

That said, if looked at separately, UConn Health was in 101st place and UConn in 187th place in 2015. If combined, the university was in 76th place.

Raising money for research from the philanthropic community has not taken off either.

The university spends $7 million each year supporting its foundation; and in return that fundraising arm provides about $40 million a year for things like student scholarships, the construction of a sports complex or for cancer research. Of the $258 million spent on research in 2014, $5.7 million came from nonpublic or business funding.

There are some promising signs that more help may be on the way from philanthropy as the school’s endowment has grown in recent years.

Universities are also ranked by more than just spending on research.

Here are some of those rankings, based on data from 2013, the most recent year available.

Membership in the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering or the Institute of Medicine is “one of the highest honors that academic faculty can receive,” according to CMUP. UConn had one academy member and UConn Health four. The organization also looked at the number of prominent grants and fellowships faculty are awarded – such as the Fulbright American Scholars, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellows and Sloan Research Fellows. At UConn Storrs, eight faculty won prominent awards and at UConn Health, three faculty.

Other National Rankings
The Center for Measuring University Performance each year takes into account dozens of factors when ranking universities
Rank for number of emoloyees that are National Academy members Rank for faculty awarded prominent grants and fellowships Rank for doctorates awarded Rank for postdoctoral appointees
UConn Health 62 100 195 79
UConn 101 46 52 74

Research can also be measured by the impact it has on the field, meaning how often it is cited by other experts. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, known as the Shanghai rankings, puts UConn in the middle of the 500 schools graded from around the world for having highly cited researchers. Among U.S. universities, UConn comes in about 100th place for having highly cited researchers. On the number of citations each faculty member has, QS World University Rankings places UConn in 177th place among schools ranked across the world and 60th among schools in the U.S.

The libraries at UConn, a critical pillar of the school’s dedication to research, have also seen its rankings slip in recent years. One-third of the library budget is typically spent employing librarians and other staff and the remainder on books, subscriptions and other materials.

Officials at UConn are well aware of this slippage. In a presentation to UConn’s faculty last spring, they highlighted the problem and showed how the school compares to its peer universities on staffing levels and spending on materials. While the number of full-time library staff has dropped by 17 percent since 2008, the number of faculty and students at UConn have seen sizable increases. This has led to the university’s having one of the largest ratios of full-time staff and spending on books and other materials per 1,000 students when compared to its peers.

uconn library
uconn library peers

Not included

An invitation to join the Association of American Universities would arguably be the most prestigious recognition that UConn could receive for its research efforts.

Membership in the highly coveted organization indicates significant research achievement and spending, based on numerous data points. The organization includes 62 public and private universities.

So far UConn has not been invited to join the group.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

Leave a comment