Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Science Writer, UANews
Of more 539 universities ranked for research and development (R&D) expenditures in the physical sciences –astronomy, optics, physics and chemistry – the UA comes in second and number one for astronomy.
The University of Arizona is first in astronomy in a national ranking of 539 public and private universities for research expenditures and second in the physical sciences, according to data from the National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development Survey.
The report, which compares higher education institutions in terms of their research expenditures in astronomy including space exploration, physics and chemistry for the 2012 fiscal year, places only the California Institute of Technology higher than the UA in R&D expenditures overall.
Of $4.8 billion being spent in physical sciences, UA scientists appropriated almost $179 million in research grants and contracts from federal, state and private sources to create new knowledge or advance new technologies in 2012.
Overall, R&D spending at U.S. universities in all fields of research – mostly science, but also engineering, education, law and others – totaled $65.8 billion in fiscal year 2012. Out of 539 universities, the UA ranks No. 29 for scientific research expenditures across all fields.
These fiscal statistics represent an indirect measure of the capability of the University to perform high-caliber research, because most grants and contracts are awarded if they pass muster in a highly competitive and selective peer-review process.
UA plays in the same league as Caltech, Johns Hopkins
According to Tim Swindle, department head and director of the UA Department of Planetary Sciences/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the UA has been ranked between No. 20 and 30 across R&D expenditures in all science areas for the last 10 years; has traded the top three places in the Physical Sciences category with Caltech and Johns Hopkins; and has been first in astronomy – represented at the UA by Lunar and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory – every year during that period.
"It is important to note that most of that money has been won in national competitions for grants and contracts, which means that our peers and the funding agencies are recognizing the UA's continuing strength," Swindle said. "From an economic perspective, most of the money spent on research actually goes to pay salaries and buy equipment, so we're creating jobs in Arizona."
These efforts include optical sciences, another leading area of research and innovation at the UA. Recent projects at the UA College of Optical Sciences include shaping and polishing the mirror for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope. When completed, it will be the largest mirror ever pointed at the sun.
"We have an appetite for doing big science that often spans the whole campus," said Thomas Koch, dean of the College of Optical Sciences. "That’s one of the exciting things that really draws people to the UA."
According to the National Science Foundation, R&D expenditures are just one indicator of the research activity and productivity at a university. A higher amount of expenditures compared with peer institutions generally means a higher number of awards received in that field, or a higher dollar value of the awards – both of which can be signs of a robust research program. Other indicators would be the number of research faculty in a field, numbers of proposals and awards, publications, patents as well as licenses, and such.
"The UA is a leader in physical sciences research, with extraordinary projects such as the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, mirrors for the world's largest telescopes, and instruments for the Large Hadron Collider," said Jennifer Barton, interim vice president for research at the UA. "These worldwide impacts are also felt here at home, creating opportunities for student engagement and a boost to the Arizona economy. The economic impact of space sciences alone is over $250 million per year."
According to the UA Annual Research Report for fiscal year 2013, the University increased its overall ranking to No. 29 among all universities included in the report (private and public) and No. 19 when private universities are excluded.
Research undertaken at the UA furthers and fulfills one aspect of the University's mission, “to provide a comprehensive, high-quality education that engages our students in discovery through research and broad-based scholarship,” the report noted, concluding that "every dollar spent on research is returned several-fold in benefits to the University, the community and future generations."
As a result of its strong research programs and expenditures on research, the economic impact of the UA research enterprise to the state is $1.2 billion and 8,728 jobs, according to a recent study performed by consulting firm Tripp Umbach.
UA scientists in astronomy and planetary exploration are world-renowned for taking on projects such as building the world's largest and structurally most advanced telescope mirrors, imaging the surface of Mars in unprecedented detail, and developing a robotic spacecraft bound for a potentially hazardous asteroid in order to retrieve a sample. Scientists in the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory have leading roles in developing NASA's next generation space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will peer farther into the universe's history than any telescope to date.
"We are thrilled that outstanding scientists continue to select to bring their fellowships to the UA to pursue their research," said Buell Jannuzi, director of the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory. "We are proud that we have a working environment and facilities that are internationally recognized as being a great place to undertake astrophysical research."
Strength in research – commercializing technology
The high volume of research activity at the University also impacts economic development in Arizona, both by creating a talented workforce and also directly through innovations that can be commercialized. Tech Launch Arizona, led by Vice President David Allen, focuses on assessing and commercializing inventions developed during the course of such research. During the current fiscal year, TLA has worked with faculty to file 82 unique patent applications, and turn innovations from the College of Pharmacy, the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Lunar and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Mathematics into startup businesses.
UA College of Science Executive Dean Joaquin Ruiz said: "We continue to show the world the powerhouse strength that we have in astronomy, planetary sciences, chemistry and physics. I am very proud to be part of an institution that has produced such quality on a consistent basis."
The data for this report were compiled through the Higher Education Research and Development Survey by the NSF's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. The survey is the primary source of information on R&D expenditures at U.S. colleges and universities.
Science Writer, UANews