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Northwestern’s Sponsored Research Funding Jumps to Nearly $800M

Unprecedented growth parallels Northwestern’s transformative research impact; credit given to strategic team approach by faculty, staff, and leadership

Jean Smessaert

Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine recorded a record-breaking $533.9 million in sponsored research funding last fiscal year, a 10.2 percent increase over 2018. Photo of pathologist assistant Jean Smessaert by Teresa Crawford.

Continuing a longstanding growth trend, Northwestern increased its annual sponsored research funding to $797.8 million in fiscal year 2019, which closed on August 31. This figure reflects a 13.6 percent increase over the previous year and a 67.3 percent rise since 2009 when funding stood at $476.9 million annually. [1] This year-over-year percentage jump is the largest for the University since 2002.

The sustained growth has occurred even during times when federal funding has been more competitive, said Jay Walsh, vice president for research. He credited the impressive results to  both long-term strategic thinking by leadership across the university and a coordinated, team effort by many University citizens. Walsh also said that while attracting research funding is vital to Northwestern discovery, the impact and societal benefit of this discovery is really the most valuable factor. That impact occurs within individual fields and at the intersection of disciplinary boundaries, he noted.

“This new record-high for funding is indicative of the increasing impact that Northwestern’s research enterprise is having on society,” said Walsh. “Our research community is advancing knowledge across all fields — from biomedical innovations that enhance health and wellbeing for newborns in the NICU to explorations of the fundamental dynamics of scientific discovery to new materials that play a foundational role in the future of energy and quantum science. Our investigators are making pioneering astrophysics discoveries that reveal cosmic mysteries, while others are examining our social fabric closer to home to better understand and mitigate violence. In every school across the University, we are making important contributions.”

Over the past fiscal year, many of Northwestern’s schools and units showed marked percentage increases in funding year-over-year, including:

  • School of Communication: +42%
  • Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences: +24.6%
  • McCormick School of Engineering: +20.8%
  • Feinberg School of Medicine: +10.2%
  • School of Education and Social Policy: +9.9%
  • University Research Institutes and Centers (URICs): +24% [2]

The significant increase in sponsored funding this year is largely attributable to Northwestern’s thought leadership within and across various disciplines, said Rex Chisholm, associate vice president for research. “Our faculty are world-class scientists and scholars whose work addresses complex, diverse, and important challenges,” said Chisholm. “Their efforts and results consistently attract major support. Growth in biomedical research across the University continues to drive sponsored research growth, but engineering and physical sciences have contributed significantly as well. It is also noteworthy that the second-largest contributor to the overall awards comes from University Research Institutes and Centers that foster research at the interfaces between traditional disciplines.”

True Team Effort

Walsh said he applauds the “incredible talent and dedication” of the Northwestern faculty and postdoctoral and graduate students who are “driving the research agenda.” He also praised University-wide leadership from the Board of Trustees to leadership in the schools and central administration for supporting a thriving environment where great research can occur. He noted, too, the vital role that philanthropic donors play in the discovery process.  Similarly, he highlighted the “broader foundation” upon which Northwestern’s research enterprise relies: administrative staff within the Office for Research, schools, units, and URICs.

“Our success is rooted in strategy, tactics, and hard work,” Walsh said. “There are many incredible people across this University to thank. Among them are administrative staff members who provide an immense amount of support for the outstanding work taking place in the Northwestern research community, doing so in a variety of ways.”

Over the last fiscal year, for example, Northwestern’s Sponsored Research office has reviewed and submitted more than 3,500 proposals totaling nearly $3.4 billion and executed more than 4,400 contracts, in addition to setting up more than 3,000 awards to enable the current record-setting research funding total. All these numbers represent record highs.

Among those awards were two significant wins for Northwestern’s cross-disciplinary efforts:  a $46 million, 5-year renewal from NIH for Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS) and a $25 million grant from NIST that will support the second phase of the Center for Hierarchical Materials and Design (CHiMaD), an interinstitutional hub for high-tech materials research hosted by Northwestern. [3]

Other staff members within the Office for Research provide a range of resources and expertise. These include world-class care for the animal-based research that is foundational for the University’s ever-growing clinical trial activities which, in turn, lead to new diagnostic and therapeutic modalities for some of humanity’s most significant diseases. Staff also help safeguard human participants in University research and provide training and support to ensure Northwestern research is conducted safely and in compliance with federal regulations, including those related to export controls and research integrity.

“It takes concerted effort and investment in our research infrastructure to ensure that Northwestern remains among the world’s top research universities,” said Walsh. “As we continue to grow and pursue breakthroughs, we will remain strategic and collaborative in our approach with stakeholders across the University to support the institution’s mission of bold discovery with societal impact.”

[1] This number, which is updated daily on the Sponsored Research website, is unaudited and typically increases very slightly after additional review  for duplications, omissions, and rare errors.

[2] The University credits schools for awards made to the primary investigators who are awarded funds within a URIC. Were the URICs considered as a separate collective unit, this figure would represent the year-over-year percentage increase.

[3] Usually the entire amount of a new multiyear award is not attributed to a single year. Typically, in each year of a grant there is attribution of the amount awarded for that year. For example, if the CHiMaD grant were awarded evenly over five years, then that award would contribute $5 million to the sponsored awards funding total for each of those five years.

By Matt Golosinski