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Research funding hits record $893 million

Support for Northwestern’s high-impact work continued growing despite COVID-19
research funding
The University’s wide-ranging investigations have thrived across all disciplines.

Even during a protracted and disruptive global pandemic, Northwestern University’s research enterprise once again demonstrated strong performance, with annual sponsored funds reaching a new record high of $893.4 million for the fiscal year that closed Aug. 31. 

This represents an increase of 1% from last year’s total and continues a decade-long trend that has positioned Northwestern among the nation’s most prestigious research institutions. Since 2011, the University’s research funding has increased more than 74% as Northwestern approaches $1 billion in sponsored support, a feat achieved by only its top academic peers. 

Despite the challenges of COVID-19 over the past 18 months, the University’s wide-ranging investigations have continued to thrive across all disciplines and often at the intersection of those disciplines. While research of all kinds has advanced, Northwestern faculty have made high-impact contributions to combat the novel coronavirus, including work to identify potential drug targets, research to better understand and treat pneumonia associated with COVID-19, lifesaving transplant surgeries performed on COVID-19 patients, and policy-focused research studies, some of which aim to help strengthen our ability to respond better to future health crises and assess various public perceptions about the pandemic and its socioeconomic implications. 

Since 2011, Northwestern research funding has increased more than 74%

“It is extremely gratifying to see Northwestern’s research activity continue to grow and for our investigations to contribute in important ways to both basic and applied science that strengthens society, stimulates entrepreneurship and economic development, and improves people’s lives,” said Milan Mrksich, vice president for research. “As one of the nation’s top research universities, Northwestern’s exceptional research portfolio and performance are expected. But our ongoing success throughout the pandemic also has highlighted the talent, resilience and collaboration of our world-class faculty and students as well as the dedicated staff that supports their investigations.” 

The largest single source of Northwestern research funding once again came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provided $488.6 million, a 1% increase over last year. Funding across most schools remained strong, with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine receiving $610 million in research support, while the McCormick School of Engineering and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences each received more than $107 million. Northwestern’s 40 University Research Institutes and Centers (URICs) — interdisciplinary hubs that attract talent from across various schools — received more than $71 million in the recently concluded fiscal year.

The dollar amount of proposal activity was up 7% over the prior year, totaling $3.8 billion, continuing a steady upward trend in recent years and increasing by $1 billion since 2017. The number of awards was even with the previous year’s activity, totaling 3,438, although the complexity of those awards has tended to increase due to larger teams, including multi-institutional collaborations, factors that demand additional time and expertise from Northwestern’s Sponsored Research team, the unit within the Office for Research that negotiates, accepts and sets up awards.  

“Our research portfolio now includes a higher percentage of larger, complex awards, reflecting the collaborative approach to research that Northwestern fosters,” said Shandra White, executive director of Sponsored Research. “Having diverse projects within Northwestern’s research landscape is vital, along with the robust infrastructure to support the complexity of those high-impact investigations.”

The range of that research is extraordinary: Northwestern life science investigations are seeking to understand aging and degenerative diseases; astronomers and physicists continue revealing cosmic and quantum secrets; social scientists are pursuing policy studies aimed at supporting better economic, educational and health outcomes; energy and sustainability research is continuing to advance at the University; cross-disciplinary collaboration — including between medicine and engineering — enable diagnostic and clinical innovations; and Northwestern’s arts and humanities deepens our understanding of ourselves and celebrates a wide array of creative expression.

Mrksich acknowledged the pandemic’s stark challenges for higher education and many sectors of the economy since March 2020. For example, industry-sponsored funding declined significantly, as expected, due to the global health crisis. Still, Mrksich noted that this support recently has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the last quarter. He also pointed out that since FY19 the University has seen a nearly 12% increase in overall sponsored research funding, and he said this year’s increase proves that, even during difficult times, Northwestern’s research enterprise “remains vibrant, resilient and determined” to continue making high-impact contributions across all disciplines.

“The remarkable depth and breadth of Northwestern research continues to make a huge positive impact, transforming entire fields and strengthening society,” Mrksich said. “As we continue to go from strength to strength — including important investments in our entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem to increase translation — we will enhance our already superb research enterprise to keep elevating Northwestern’s reputation as a premier destination for the best scholars, scientists and students in the world.”

- Matt Golosinski is director of communications in the Office for Research.