Virginia’s Mediocre R&D Showing

Despite all the hype put out by the state’s universities, the fact remains that Virginia is distinctly an “also ran” when it comes to research and development.

In fact, its leading R&D institution, Virginia Tech, is losing ground. It fell from 42nd to 46th place in the Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities conducted by the National Science Foundation released Oct. 1. Tech lost $7 million in R&D funding in the past year, making total R&D spending $373 million.
To find other Old Dominion schools, you have to go pretty far down the list. U.Va. ranked No. 70 with $258 million in funding. Virginia Commonwealth University, despite all the attention focused on R&D by former President Eugene Trani, ranks 108th with piddling $149 million in spending. That’s pretty modest, to say the least, and shows that VCU still hasn’t quite graduated from the ranks of the commuter school.
None of this is particularly impressive, especially in VCU’s case. Trani made a big deal of pushing the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park down near the MCV campus in downtown Richmond.
The state’s and Richmond’s R&D status was supposed to have gotten a big boost when Philip Morris USA built a $350 million R&D center there. And Trani risked his school’s reputation by entering into highly restrictive R&D deals with Philip Morris that brought a dunning by his faculty and a national black eye to the school’s reputation.
After all this, one wonders, “Where’s the Beef?”
The leading schools are the usual ones, Johns Hopkins ($1.6 billion), University of California at San Francisco ($885 million) followed by Wisconsin, San Diego, UCLA and so on. Regionally, Duke makes a decent showing in the No. 7 spot at $767 million. Except for Duke, the Top 7 saw their R&D funding increase from 2007 to 2008.
True, we’re just coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression and that has to account for some of the lackluster showing. But NSF data shows that federal funding for R&D actually plateaued in 2004, or halfway through the administration of George W. Bush.
Those were pretty good economic times. Yet I remember doing a cover story for Chief Executive magazine around then that was based on a survey of what 500 or so CEOs at top companies felt about Bush’s performance. He got a mediocre “C plus.” One big reason was his lack of concern about R&D. Many of the CEOs operate globally and have to compete with well-funded researchers in Asia and Europe and were very concerned about the U.S. losing ground in competitiveness.
Back to Virginia, I remember organizing a survey of the Old Dominion’s tech performance at a regional business magazine earlier this decade. It wasn’t all that impressive. Universities didn’t account for many patents. Most were obtained by the Navy or Philip Morris and neither institution is particularly “Virginian.”
It’s hard to tell where gubernatorial candidates Bob McDonnell are on this issue. Republican McDonnell says he wants to create jobs, but he seems more intent on drilling for gas and oil miles off the coast than boosting state college labs. Democrat Creigh Deeds has run a confused, reactive campaign and doesn’t seem to weigh in on the issue. But he doesn’t seem to weigh in on any issue other than McDonnell’s master’s thesis back in the 1980s.
So, next time you hear some bombast about how great Virginia is doing, keep the NSF survey in mind.
Peter Galuszka
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13 responses to “Virginia’s Mediocre R&D Showing

  1. Peter:

    Good summary.

    Why do we have to waste another four years before canidates get beyond being "for jobs" with not idea what that means?

  2. Peter, Good post. It's a brutally competitive world out there in the quest for R&D funding. While you're runnning hard to get ahead, so are all your competitors. Sometimes you pull a little ahead, sometimes you fall behind. Overall, Virginia institutions haven't gained much ground over the past decade or two, but they haven't lost much ground either.

    (I was surprised to see that Virginia Tech had made it as high as No. 42. If it has slipped backward, it has fallen to the position it held about 10 years ago.)

    As Groveton has observed, Virginia higher ed suffers from one huge disadvantage. Its two leading research institutions — Tech and UVa — are both located in college towns. That makes it harder to forge tight relationships with corporate sponsors in the major metro areas, as, say Stanford and MIT has done with San Francisco and Boston.

    George Mason is in a good location, in Northern Virginia, but its alumni base is only now reaching a level of maturity and career success where alumni can be counted on to contribute large sums of money. Another drawback for GMU is that NoVa's tech industry is oriented toward providing services, not originating new products through R&D. That may explain why the level of corporate support from the region is nothing to brag about.

    I'd be interested to see Groveton's observations.

  3. jim,
    Agree with you, but wouldn't expect too much out of George Mason. It's claim to fame is basically politics and social studies as an inportant hatchery for young neocons.
    It compares better with other DC schools rather than Virginia ones and neither George Washington nor Georgetown did well in the survey.


  4. I'm noticing fields like Civilian UAVs – huge huge potential market.

    I agree with Peter.

    and it would make a heck of a visionary perspective for a candidate for GOV…. especially one talking about jobs and education and the linkage between.

    you know.. it's true the manufacturing world is moving low skill jobs overseas but the world is on a technology spree… but of course since our kids rank about 15th in the industrialized world – we have some work to do.

    we need to replace 'no mo tax' with genuine fiscal conservatism that at the same times knows the value of – investments.

    I hate this track we are on right now where our choice is between 'no mo tax' Neanderthals and visionless "throw more money at it" types.

    we must have followed up big time because God is sure as heck having the locusts descend on us in the guise of politicians.

  5. Perhaps, we are all being too hard on Virginia and its public colleges. Our biggest private industries in Virginia tend to be federal government contractors and not "more traditional" businesses.

    I just don't see these kinds of businesses driving R&D to the same extent that Cisco Systems, Google, big pharma, Apple, Dell, etc. do.



  6. I would think that Virginia has some built-in incubator opportunities that other states may not have and that is DARPA and Military R&D Labs such as Dahlgren.

    The military – does excellent R&D work – for the military – and sometimes leaves promising technology on the table if they don't see specific military applications or as likely – they take the ball and run with the military apps and don't really explore the non-military applications.

    UAV technology is an excellent example of this.

    As valuable as UAVs (actually all robotics) are for the military – they are promising to be equally valuable for the private sector.

    They can be roving security cameras… hover above forests pinpointing budding forest fires.. sampling smoke-stack emissions… etc..

    there is a huge potential that Virginia could not only be part of but leverage their ties to the military on….

    From Tysons to Dulles could be become Silcon Valley East.

  7. It is illegal to fly a UAV in US Airspace. there are a few missions being flown, but they require restricted or sanitized airspace plus special permission from FAA.

    I would not invest in civilian UAV's until the regulations get fixed so they can fly legally. That could take a long time, but after taht the potential is huge.


  8. Interesting article by Peter.

    I think Virginia's universities are over-rated. UVA and W&M are living on their pasts. Virginia Tech has potential and is pretty well run but they are in the middle of nowehere (from a corporate support perspective). Just today I heard that VT was going to open an extensive suburban campus in Ballston in Arlington. If true, good for Tech.

    GMU is not all that well regarded – especially from a technical perspective. I know they have been improving by leaps and bounds but they still "rate out" pretty well down the list.

    Only the politicians in the General Assembly believe that Northern Virginia is a self-contained entity. Those of us who live here understand that you can drive to Maryland "lickety split" and be on the campus of The Univerity of Maryland at College Park. Now, there is a university that has "boot strapped" itself up the list in technical disciplines. Hopkins isn't all that far away either. So, why would a Northern Virginia executive screw his or her shareholders by trying to do research in far off Blacksburg or at GMU when they can do the same research in College Park? Because they should upport Virginia? Our shareholders don't live in Virginia any more than anywhere else. Our customers aren't in Virginia any more than anywhere else. Why should I try to deal with the dysfunctional Virginia college system when I can go to Maryland or Duke or Carnegie Mellon, etc.

    Peter is right. This belief that Virginia is some kind of economic and technology utopia is delusional. Unfortunately, our elected officials seem to be the most deluded.

    BTW – Mcaulliffe's plan to package and sell the IP from Virginia's public universities was brilliant. It seems that neither of the two stooges left in the race can be bothered to look through McAulliffe's ideas for nuggets of value.

  9. Groveton does a very nice job of describing why state borders of irrelevent.

    Regional based economies…

    Regional based health systems…

    Regional based education systems…

    It is not just transport that is Regional…


  10. My 2 cents:

    Virginia's top 3 research universities are in the top 20% of research expenditures for all US universities; UVa and VCU moved up in the rankings. Also, please note the survey measures "expenditures" not "awards". Awards at Va Tech, UVa, and VCU are still growing at a steady pace.

    I wouldn't be quick to write off VCU and ODU. Research spending at VCU has just about doubled over the past 10 years (FY98-FY08). VCU had been reporting awards of over 200 for some time now. Plus both schools are cities with a decent corporate(VCU, Richmond) or military(ODU, Norfolk) community.

    GMU definitely has it's location going for it, but on that same token, compared with other B'more/Wash DC universities GMU can quickly become an afterthought/forgotten. Not have a med college and hospital are also holding GMU back

  11. The following link is NOT relevant to this thread but I wanted to pass it along….

    It's called The Geography of Jobs;

  12. Groveton – I also liked McAuliffe's idea to commercialize IP from Virginia's universities. But he ran up against Fred Hiatt's desire to see a constant increase in Virginia's taxes. The WaPo pushed the stooge from Bath County who is ready, willing & able to raise taxes, or maybe.


  13. Out of 41 awards made by DOE for 151 million in new energy applications researdch and development, none are located in Virginia.


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