Research funding at KU jumped 20% in 2023; largest increase in at least 20 years

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this September 2023 aerial photo.

You might be tempted to look to the football field when identifying the biggest success story of 2023 at the University of Kansas. A new set of numbers suggests you might want to look to the laboratory instead.

Research funding at KU increased by more than 20% last year, its largest increase in at least 20 years, KU announced on Thursday.

Research spending — funded by everything from federal, state and private sector grants — grew to $368.6 million in the last fiscal year, a new high. The funding represented a $65 million increase from a year ago, and marked the seventh consecutive year that total KU research funding has grown.

But the 2023 results were unlike the others. Between 2019 and 2022, total KU research funding grew by $40 million. In other words, KU’s 2023 results were more than 1.5 times better than those years combined.

What’s been the difference? KU didn’t pinpoint a reason for the surge in its release, but KU leaders previously have said that KU’s designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center would be transformational to KU’s research efforts.

These numbers may be some of the first signs of that prediction turning into actual dollars.

This jump in funding coincides with the July 2022 announcement that the National Cancer Institute had certified the KU Cancer Center — based in Kansas City, Kan. at the medical center campus — as a Comprehensive Cancer Center.

That’s the same designation as well-known cancer treatment campuses such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and the MD Cancer Center in Houston. At the time of the announcement, KU became just the 53rd such center in the country.

It didn’t take long to see that the Comprehensive Cancer Center designation could mean big dollars for the university. The designation came with a $14 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, soon leveraged the designation to help the center receive a special $16 million federal appropriation.

Other grants also have come through, including $27 million to support a translational science institute and $12 million to help create a center on metabolism and obesity research. KU also listed major funding for Alzheimer’s research as one of the 2023 grant successes, and also noted several grants that weren’t related to the medical field, including grants related to: sustaining Kansas water resources; the health of Kansas reservoirs; next generation battery technology; substance misuse among adolescents; and several others.

KU has been well above average in attracting funding for research that falls outside of traditional science fields. In fact, KU might be on its way to being considered a powerhouse in that category.

In the most recent National Science Foundation Higher Education & Research Development Survey, KU was found to have the third highest amount of federally funded R&D expenditures in the nonscience and nonengineering fields. Science and engineering are traditionally the largest recipients of R&D funding across the country. If KU keeps that pipeline of funding strong — it has held the No. 3 ranking for two years in a row — and sees its funding for cancer and other medical research significantly increase as a result of the National Cancer Institute designation, KU might be poised to take a big jump in the world of university research rankings.

Funding related to education research is big driver for KU when it comes to attracting research dollars that fall outside of the traditional science and engineering realms. Plus, the School of Education is helping fuel increases in funding that KU gets from state entities. KU saw its funding from state and local R&D sources increase by $21 million or nearly 70% in 2023. A KU spokeswoman noted that KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute secured more than $36 million from states across the country to provide student learning assessments in fiscal year 2023.

National rankings based on 2023 research totals aren’t yet out. The NSF ranking mentioned above is based on 2022 totals. Overall, KU ranked 48th among public universities in research funding for the 2022 fiscal year. It is conceivable KU could jump up the list based on the strong increase it posted in 2023.

Don’t expect KU to land near the top of the NSF list, though, when it is released in the next several months. While KU’s growth is some of its strongest in history, KU still has been recovering from a serious lull in research funding last decade. Beginning in 2013, KU’s federal research funding fell four consecutive years, and then was basically stagnant for two more years before beginning a slow growth path in 2019. In fact, federal research funding remained below 2012 totals until 2023.

That hasn’t been the case at all public universities. On the research funding list, you’ll see several schools that KU competes with step-for-step in the athletic world that have total research funding amounts far above KU’s totals. In the the 2022 NSF report, for example, the University of Wisconsin has about $1.3 billion in research expenditures in 2022 compared to KU’s $368 million in 2023. Others of note include North Carolina at about $1.36 billion, Maryland at about $1.22 billion, Minnesota at $1.2 billion; and Florida at $1 billion.

But, the gap may not always be so large. Just like sports teams, university research can have watershed years too as the roster changes. Time will tell whether we should circle 2023 as one of those years for reasons other than football.


One thing that is clear is that 2024 is likely to be an important one in determining future leadership for KU’s research efforts.

KU currently is searching for a new vice chancellor of research after Simon Atkinson left that position at KU to take a similar role with the University of California-Davis, which touts a research portfolio of more than $1 billion. Atkinson had been at KU since 2019, which coincides with KU’s turnaround in research funding.

KU began reviewing applications for the vice chancellor position on March 1, but has not yet announced any finalists or a timeline for filling the position.

Belinda Sturm, a KU engineering professor who also is a director of a Kansas program that seeks to increase National Science Foundation funding in the state, is serving as the interim vice chancellor for research.