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The State of University Research

An upward view of the pillars in front of Northrop Auditorium

By Brian Herman

Last week, I was proud to provide some good news to the Board of Regents in our Annual Report on the State of Research at the U. I hit on high marks for our research enterprise that are a tribute to the creative and dedicated people of our research community (faculty, staff and students) who continue to advance academic scholarship, address global challenges and develop breakthrough research.

In the past year, the University attracted record levels of competitively awarded funding. Our researchers were awarded $754 million in externally sponsored research awards, up nearly 2 percent from FY2014. This represents a record level of funding for the University (when one-time funds from the 2009 federal stimulus bill are discounted) and is part of a long-term upward trend. Over 10 years, the University has seen a 31 percent increase in external awards. This year we also saw the value of a diversified research funding portfolio as a dip in federal awards, our largest source of research support, to the University were more than compensated for by funds from non-federal sources.

Business and industry funding for research was up more than 40 percent, the largest such increase in the past decade. This funding source now accounts for more than one out of ten external research dollars. As a University, we have focused on enhancing public-private partnerships, and this has allowed us to connect the University’s innovation and talent resources with the needs of private sector partners including PepsiCo, St. Jude Medical, Target Corp. and Boston Scientific. We have also spent a great deal of time meeting with and listening to the economic needs of communities across the state (our office of University Economic development visited 16 communities last year), and we found strong interest in partnering with the University of Minnesota on issues related to workforce and innovation.

Technology commercialization at the University continues to grow, including the launch of a record 16 startup companies, a 75 percent increase in new licenses (from 154 to 268), and 69 new sponsored research agreements. This area of our research enterprise continues to recognized by funders, thought leaders and peers in technology transfer, including by the National Institutes of Health, which awarded the U one of only three Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (or REACH) grants, which supports establishing a university-wide strategic framework promoting commercialization and technology transfer in the life sciences and biomedical technology.

Overall, the University of Minnesota sustained its high ranking among an elite group of public research institutions according to a survey by NSF and two well-regarded international studies.

I also reported to the regents on measures we are taking to keep our research enterprise thriving in the face of flat or declining (when you adjust for inflation) federal investment in research. Our research strategic plan, Five Years Forward, which is guiding efforts at collaboration, including the MnDRIVE initiative, is building tangible, interdisciplinary research successes in four areas of discovery, and efforts at building research excellence, such as through our plan to advance human research protections. I underscored that deepening public-private partnerships and building new research collaborations, be they down the hall, across the campus, between universities, or across international borders, are key to our future success.

Our challenge going forward is sustaining our research enterprise in an unstable environment. We have some answers, we see some success, especially in our efforts to create partnerships, but we need to continue to grow a research funding model that can keep the academic enterprise thriving—generating knowledge, educating students, and providing the ideas that can make our lives better.

Brian Herman is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.

Gold block M

Contributing Writer

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