The STAR METRICS (Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness STAR_METRICSand Science) project grew out of a collaboration between federal agencies and academic institutions – members of the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) – in response to a mandate associated with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or ‘the stimulus’). The Act required that recipients of ARRA funding document the outcomes associated with those public science investments. In particular, the number of jobs created was a key metric. Universities and other recipients of ARRA awards were required to submit quarterly reports, and many anticipate that at least some of those reporting requirements may become codified more broadly if the DATA Act passes Congress and is signed by the President.

The STAR METRICS program was devised as a way to leverage those data to answer important questions about the impact of federal science funding on the public – in particular on job creation and economic growth initially – and ultimately possibly to reduce the institutional reporting burden. Another goal is to allow institutions to recoup some value from the time invested in the effort expended to compile those reports by providing useful analysis back to the institution as well as facilitating the required reporting.

In the April 4th issue of Science, Weinberg, et al. present the first fruits of the STAR METRICS project in their paper, Science Funding and Short-Term Economic Activity [subscription required]. Their first sentence is certainly an understatement, “There is considerable interest among policy-makers in documenting short-term effects of science funding.” The goal of that paper, and the STAR METRICS program in general is to be able to provide answers to this question based on real data and sound scientific analysis rather than anecdotal evidence and approximations.

The data analyzed by Weinberg, et al., represent approximately $7 billion in R&D funding from all sources across nine institutions in 2012. The nine institutions, members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, are mostly large Midwestern public universities that together receive a significant share of US federal R&D support. About 56% of their 2012 R&D support was from federal sources, reflecting awards from approximately 30 agencies.

Weinberg, et al., describe variations by funding agency with regard to workforce composition, although overall, they note that non-faculty represented about 80% of people supported on federal awards. Changes to the level of federal R&D funding would disproportionately affect students and staff, which would directly affect our future capacity for cutting-edge research in the US.

With respect to short-term economic impact, they note that the nine institutions studied spent nearly $1 billion on goods and services from US vendors and subcontractors, with about one third being spent within the home state of the institution and the remainder with entities across the US. Again, substantial variation was noted across the spectrum of federal agencies providing support. They noted a surprising number of small high-technology companies among the pool of recipients of these funds. Substantial swings in R&D support from the federal government would, therefore, significantly impact this business sector.

This is the first installment in what we can expect will be a continuing stream of information flowing from the STAR METRICS program. Analyzing the rich pool of data across many organizations will yield valuable insights into the many ways that federal support of research enriches and enhances our country, our economy and our lives.

Jobs and economic stimulus, while valuable short-term measures of the economic impact of research, do not represent the long-term public benefits accruing from federally funded research – expanding the boundaries of human knowledge and growing the economy. Rather, jobs data and the flow of federal R&D monies into local, regional, national and international companies and industries is a measure of the impact of the process of science.

Research administrators play a pivotal role in the process of science. Our responsibilities place us at the nexus of the relationship between investigators, institutions and sponsors. While each has responsibilities to the other, we sit in the middle of many of those relationships, balancing the needs of one against the other every day.

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