KU’s research ranking grew by five spots in the last year, but it still ranks low among prestigious AAU schools

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is pictured in September 2021.

The University of Kansas has moved up five spots in a key ranking of top public research universities in the country, KU announced Tuesday.

But the latest rankings from the Higher Education and Research Development Survey also show that KU’s research dollars continue to be near the bottom of the pack of all public universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities — a group that KU is counting on remaining a part of.

On Tuesday, KU touted that the latest rankings — which measure research expenditures from both government and private sources for fiscal year 2020 — place KU at No. 44 among all public universities in the country. That’s up from a No. 49 ranking a year ago.

“KU’s rise in the HERD rankings affirms our researchers’ enduring commitment to advancing knowledge, discovery and innovation for the benefit of our state, nation and world. Even as the pandemic put constraints on university research, our scholars found ways to adapt and persist,” said Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research on the Lawrence campus.

KU’s announcement didn’t address its placement among AAU institutions. That data shows KU ranks No. 30 out of 36 public universities that are members of the AAU. KU’s low ranking on the list doesn’t portend any particular trouble for KU and its AAU membership status. The AAU doesn’t decide which schools remain in the AAU based on a simple ranking of research dollars, and KU hasn’t been warned that its membership is in jeopardy.

However, KU’s status in the organization — which generally is conveyed as a symbol of being one of the top research institutions in North America — has been a topic of concern among some faculty ever since the University of Nebraska lost its membership in the AAU in 2011 amid sagging research activity.

KU leaders frequently tout membership in the AAU as one of KU’s biggest competitive advantages over other universities in the region. KU is the only school in Kansas to be part of the organization.

More broadly, though, KU leaders have highlighted the importance of growing the amount of research conducted at both KU and its medical center campus in Kansas City. On that front, the latest rankings showed progress.

The data, which measured research figures at 915 public and private universities, showed KU had $368 million in research expenditures in fiscal year 2020. That was up by 4.5% from a year earlier. It was up 18% from the 2015 total, which was $311 million.

The report also measured the amount of research expenditures funded solely by federal grants, which is a closely watched metric in the research world. KU’s growth in that category was stronger. It finished fiscal year 2020 with $185 million in federal expenditures, up about 9% from $169 million a year earlier. Since 2015, KU’s federal research expenditures are up about 19% from $155 million.

Last year’s growth rate put KU in line with expectations that Chancellor Douglas Girod has previously stated about growth in federal research dollars.

“I think we really believe there is a path forward for 8% to 12% growth every year for the next four to five years,” Girod told the Journal-World in November of expected growth in research grant funding. “A lot of it will depend on what the federal funding model looks like and what is out there, but it looks like there is going to be more federal research funding, not less, for the foreseeable future.”

But the $185 million in federal expenditures in fiscal year 2020 also serve as a reminder of how much more KU has to do on the research front. Atkinson told the Journal-World in November that he thought KU needed to be at about $300 million a year in federal research expenditures several years from now in order for KU to “stay on track.”

KU has created a new strategic plan focused solely on research that is designed to grow those numbers. The university is investing in a new KU Innovation Park on West Campus that is designed not only to house start-up companies in incubator space, but also to provide large companies access to KU lab space and researchers in an effort to spur collaboration and job growth.

Atkinson told the Journal-World on Tuesday that he’s pleased with the progress that KU is making in implementing the strategic plan.

“Throughout the university, we are channeling energy and resources toward creating and sustaining a ‘culture of research,’ where high-quality, impactful research is supported, incentivized and demanded,” he said. “In addition to Research Rising, which will launch a series of major new research initiatives aligned with our strategic research themes and help KU achieve national preeminence in several areas of inquiry, we have designed internal funding competitions like KU Research GO and the Racial Equity Research, Scholarship & Creative Activity Awards to seed research with high potential to attract external funding …”

KU highlighted several pieces of data on Tuesday that showed particular areas of strength for the university. Those included:

• A No. 3 overall ranking in the amount of federally financed research and development in non-science and engineering fields.

• A No. 22 ranking in federally financed R&D expenditures in psychology.

KU’s research expenditures were the largest in Kansas, outdistancing the state’s other two research universities, Kansas State and Wichita State. Among all public and private universities, KU ranked No. 70 in total research expenditures with $368 million. Kansas State ranked No. 115 with $213 million. That number was down slightly from 2019 and 2018 totals, when KSU had about $218 million in expenditures.

Wichita State ranked No. 140 overall with $153 million in research expenditures. However, WSU has been growing its total rapidly. Its 2020 expenditures were up by 19% or about $25 million over the last year. They’re up about $94 million since 2015.

AAU Rankings

Here’s a look at how the public universities in the AAU rank based on total research expenditures in fiscal year 2021. The last number shows their overall rank among the 915 public and private universities that were measured.

— Michigan, No. 2

• Washington, No. 5

• California-San Diego, No. 6

• UCLA, No. 7

• Wisconsin, No. 8

• North Carolina, No. 13

• Texas A&M, No. 14

• Pittsburgh, No. 15

• Maryland, No. 16

• Georgia Tech, No. 19

• Minnesota, No. 20

• Penn State, No. 22

• Ohio State, No. 24

• Florida, No. 26

• California-Berkeley, No. 30

• California-Davis, No. 32

• Texas, No. 34

• Arizona, No. 35

• Indiana, No. 37

• Michigan State, No. 38

• Illinois, No. 39

• Rutgers, No. 40

• Purdue, No. 41

• Virginia, No. 44

• Utah, No. 46

• Iowa, No. 52

• Colorado, No. 54

• California-Irvine, No. 55

• Buffalo, No. 62

• KU, No. 70

• Iowa State, No. 71

• Missouri, No. 78

• Stony Brook, No. 98

• California-Santa Barbara, No. 101

• California-Santa Cruz, No. 142

• Oregon, No. 154


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