KU is solidly in top 100 nationally for research and development dollars, but it’s not keeping up in some key areas

photo by: Sylas May

They make airplanes — not rockets — in Wichita, but there’s a new set of numbers out that might cause you to think differently. After all, something has powered Wichita State University’s engineering school into the stratosphere.

Wichita State finished fiscal year 2021 as a top 20 university in the entire country for engineering research and development funding. Others included in that top 20 group include research powerhouses like Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, MIT, Cal-Berkley and Michigan, according to the recently released higher education research and development report from the National Science Foundation.

That same document — which is considered the annual report card for research universities across the country — delivers a more mixed accounting of the University of Kansas. KU is still the biggest mass in Kansas — its $380 million in R&D funding in fiscal year 2021 was $180 million more than the next closest university in the state.

KU is solidly a top 100 research university in the country, ranking 72nd among all public and private schools in 2021. It is a top 50 public university at No. 47. In terms of life sciences funding — think medical-related research — KU is second among all Big 12 universities.

But the NSF report also provides evidence that while KU is big for the region, the rocket fuel isn’t necessarily flowing at the university. Rather, the constraining effects of gravity are being felt. KU’s 72nd ranking among all universities actually was down two spots from its No 70 ranking in 2020. Additionally, its engineering school funding ranks near the bottom of the Big 12 conference.

The starkest figure, though, is found when you drill deeper into the report. The NSF tracks both total R&D funding and federal R&D funding because those federal funds often are the lifeblood of major research universities. In fiscal year 2021, KU attracted federal research dollars at a far slower pace than it expected.

Last year, Chancellor Douglas Girod said he thought it was reasonable to expect increases of 8% to 12% a year in federal research dollars for the next several years, based on KU’s growing research portfolio. But in fiscal year 2021, federal R&D funding at KU grew by just 1.2%. Nationally, federal R&D funding to universities grew by 6.6% for the year. Since 2010, growth in KU’s federal R&D funding has consistently trailed the national average. KU’s federal dollars have grown by about 27%. Nationally, federal R&D dollars to universities have increased by 31%.

Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research for KU, said the numbers are a reminder that KU is in serious competition for R&D funding, and often is competing against larger universities located closer to the coastal medical and tech hubs, and the schools frequently have greater state funding and facilities.

“I think we are doing pretty well,” Atkinson said, given the challenges, “but we recognize that we need to do better.”

photo by: Courtesy: University of Kansas

Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research, University of Kansas

Aiming for elite

Atkinson and other KU leaders believe there is good reason to expect that KU soon will be doing better. The 2021 R&D numbers were compiled before the KU Medical Center was named a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

When the announcement was made last summer, KU became just the 53rd Comprehensive Cancer Center in the nation. That’s the same designation as well-known cancer treatment campuses such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, for example.

If KU is ever to have a depot of rocket fuel, it likely will be in the cancer department of the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

On the day of the announcement, KU received a $14 million, five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute and a $16 million federal appropriation secured by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.

The dollars have only gotten bigger since that July announcement. In December, Moran’s office announced that $43 million was included in Congress’ year-end funding bill for a new cancer center building on the KU Med campus.

Those are the early signs of the power of a Comprehensive Cancer Center designation.

“That really is going to make a difference,” Atkinson said of the designation. “It puts KU in that elite group of institutions.”

To make matters better, the latest NSF report shows KU is starting from a pretty strong spot. With $230 million in life sciences research funding in 2021, KU already ranks No. 2 in the Big 12 Conference when it comes to life sciences research. KU trails only Baylor, which has a massive medical school that garners more than $700 million in R&D funding on its own.

The fact that KU already is ahead of institutions like the University of Texas — overall it is a behemoth that garnered nearly $800 million in total R&D funding, but only $150 million in life sciences dollars — is significant.

In basketball parlance, that ranking, combined with the new Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, will get the attention of five-star recruits.

“There is nothing that helps you attract top-notch researchers like having other successful researchers they will be working with,” Atkinson said.

photo by: Sara Shepherd

The University of Kansas Medical Center campus in Kansas City, Kan., shown from 39th Street facing east, is pictured June 11, 2017.

An engineering rebuild

Observers of the Lawrence economy are likely to note that any surge in R&D funding for the Cancer Center is likely to boost the Kansas City economy more than the Lawrence economy, since most of the research will take place on that KC campus. The Lawrence campus is expected to see some benefit, especially in the School of Pharmacy and the molecular biosciences department, Atkinson said.

But Atkinson also predicted it will be an entirely different discipline that drives R&D growth on the Lawrence campus.

“I do think engineering is the main opportunity for growth in research on the Lawrence campus,” Atkinson said.

The latest NSF report provides a glimpse at the work that needs to be done. KU ranked second to last in engineering R&D funding among all Big 12 universities that have a school of engineering.

By the same token, the report shows that there is the potential for $100 million or more in new research activity on the KU campus just by growing the engineering school. KU had about $21 million in engineering research dollars, according to the NSF report. Texas had nearly $280 million in engineering R&D money, while Iowa State had about $125 million.

Nationally, engineering funding is the second largest category of all R&D funding, trailing life sciences. Since 2018, engineering R&D funding nationally has been growing at a slightly higher rate than life sciences.

In other words, there is money to be had. But it is unlikely to come cheaply.

“We know this is an area we need to invest in,” Atkinson said of efforts to increase engineering R&D funding. “We need to keep recruiting engineering faculty, and that is expensive. That is why the budget the state gives us is such a concern for us.”

While more state funding would be helpful, Wichita State is proving that you can get the attention of the engineering industry while being located in Kansas. WSU’s ascent to a top-20 engineering school has produced some eye-popping numbers. In 2018, Wichita State had about $63 million in engineering R&D funds. By the end of 2021, it had nearly $160 million. Engineering expenditures grew by 148%. During that same time period, KU’s engineering expenditures grew by 22%.

The way WSU climbed the ladder may be different than how KU will attempt to do so. Atkinson, who praised what WSU has done, said that university focused primarily on aerospace engineering. KU, on the other hand, is trying to develop some areas of emphasis in engineering, such as computer science and cybersecurity, but doesn’t want to specialize to the degree that WSU has.

“We are trying to build up some focus areas, but we need to maintain a broad portfolio in engineering,” said Atkinson, who believes that broad focus is important to help the state meet its variety of engineering workforce needs.

Big ambitions

Despite the different path, Atkinson is projecting strong growth in KU engineering’s research portfolio. He said a positive, early sign of the potential is that the NSF has made 11 “career awards” to researchers in the KU engineering department over an approximately five-year period.

“The NSF is recognizing folks who have a chance to be leading researchers over their careers,” Atkinson said. “That’s the type of people the school has been able to attract. They are building it up, and research dollars are growing.”

Atkinson expects it to grow more quickly in the future. He thinks it’s reasonable to expect 10% per year growth in engineering expenditures in the next several years.

“But it will take us some time to get the momentum to achieve that,” he said.

That would mean KU engineering research funding would grow at twice the rate that it is today — an ambitious goal, but Atkinson said there is no reason for KU to be anything other than ambitious when it comes to the future of research.

He pointed to construction that is underway on KU’s West Campus to build a live, work, play development that will include not only university research labs, but also office buildings that will house companies that want to be close to KU researchers. For good measure, the project also will include commercial amenities and upscale residential housing, aimed to attract students and researchers alike.

That’s a partnership between KU and KU Endowment, the billion-dollar-plus private fundraising arm of the university. It is just one of several research initiatives KU Endowment is involved with. Less visible has been KU’s Research Rising project, which last year provided $12 million in funding to KU researchers on the Lawrence campus.

Add together the new projects, the new cancer center designation and KU’s overall top 100 ranking, and Atkinson believes KU has something that allows it to have aggressive ambitions — a true national reputation.

“We really are a major part of the U.S research enterprise,” Atkinson said.

By the numbers

Here’s a look at how KU, other Big 12 institutions and selected other universities have fared in total research and development expenditures since 2010. The list shows the 2021 R&D total for the school, and the percentage it’s changed since 2010. Note that some universities report their medical schools as a separate entity. KU does not. Medical school funding is included in KU’s overall total.

• University of Texas: $779.3 million, up 32.2%

• Baylor school of medicine: $716.9 million, up 60.1%

• KU: $385.6 million, up 43.9%

• University of Oklahoma: $380 million, up 74.3%

• Iowa State: $360.2 million, up 44%

• Kansas State: $203.8 million, up 26.9%

• West Virginia: $199.9 million, up 29%

• Oklahoma State: $198.7 million, up 35.2%

• Texas Tech: $197.7 million, up 48.3%

• Baylor, main campus: $48.8 million, up 346%

• Texas Tech health: $41.5 million, down 18.9%

• TCU: $15.3 million, up 189%

• North Carolina: $1.2 billion, up 59.7%

• University of Colorado: $547.7 million, up 56.7%

• University of Cincinnati: $551.8 million, up 34.2%

• University of Missouri: $388.7 million, up 63%

• University of Nebraska main campus: $307 million, up 37%

• University of Central Florida: $219.7 million, up 86.2%

• University of Houston: $202.5 million, up 69%

• University of Nebraska medical: $200.9 million, up 45.4%

• Wichita State: $192 million, up 272.7%

• University of Arkansas: $164.4 million, up 44.4%

• BYU: $43.9 million, up 33.1%

• University of Missouri Kansas City: $33.8 million, up 12.2%

Here’s a look at research and development totals for engineering at Big 12 institutions in fiscal year 2021.

• University of Texas: $279.7 million

• Iowa State: $123.4 million

• Texas Tech: $41.9 million

• West Virginia: $39.8 million

• University of Oklahoma: $39.7 million

• Oklahoma State: $35 million

• Kansas State: $27.7 million

• KU: $21.3 million

• Baylor: $7.2 million

• TCU: $36,000


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