By SHANNON O. WELLS
New numbers from the National Institutes of Health place Pitt in a positive light in terms of research funding, with a No. 3 ranking for the most recent fiscal year, covering October 2021 to September 2022.
Pitt’s $675.4 million in research and development funding represents an increase of $77.6 million, moving the University up six places, just behind University of California–San Francisco ($823.8 million) and Johns Hopkins University ($839.9 million).
Pitt’s School of Medicine earned a No. 6 NIH ranking, its highest in several years, based on $424.1 million in funding, between the University of Michigan ($470.5 million) and University of California–San Diego ($390.8 million).
Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, presented these numbers, which were released in January, during the monthly Senate Research Committee meeting on Feb. 17.
“Pitt did really well in the last two years, in overall research funding,” Rutenbar told the University Times after the meeting, acknowledging that “the ways in which the overall funding community tracks and measures things is surprisingly complicated.”
Noting that Pitt’s No. 3 ranking reflects the total research funding to Pitt, he called the School of Medicine’s No. 6 showing, “again a super strong performance,” adding that “the landscape of peers in that top 10 is very elite.”
The numbers also reflect notable improvement in the “shape” of NIH funding, showing growth in team-oriented and larger awards. While Pitt saw a decrease from $42.5 million to $39.99 million in the funding greater than $10 million category between fiscal year 2021 and fiscal year 2022.
The University saw a 91 percent increase (from $30 million to $57.5 million) in $5 million to $10 million awards, a 16 percent increase in $1 million to $5 million awards (from $112 million to $129.7 million), and an 8 percent increase in funding in the less than $1 million category (from $413.2 million to $448.2 million).
These numbers reflect “more growth in the larger funding size categories (based on) more teams, more collaborations, more focus on bigger efforts,” Rutenbar said, noting the fall off in the top category “is mainly due to the expiration of some large grants” around the COVID pandemic.
Rutenbar also shared the latest National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research & Development (NSF HERD) expenditures, which are typically released in December. Dropping three places, Pitt ranks 18th with $1.135 million in overall research expenditure, a $29,884 increase from 2020.
“This is again very strong performance — top 20 is always great — and down mainly because a few schools passed us by a little bit,” he said. “This is one where the National Science Foundation goes out to (the) big schools and asks us to fill out a very detailed survey of our spending (including) external awards — money that comes in from outside,” he said during the Feb. 17 presentation.
“We got a grant from NSF, we got a grant from NIH, we got a grant from the Department of Energy, we got a grant from the Gates Foundation, we got a grant from Microsoft — and then account for the spending over the last year.”
The HERD survey is always one year behind, Rutenbar explained, with December 2022 numbers reflecting funding activity from 2021.
NSF also publishes numbers from the previous approximately 10 years “so you can see what's going on. This is kind of the best measure we have of the total research intensity at the University,” Rutenbar said. “And this is more than just external funding. This is everything that we are allowed to count as being research expenditure.”
One of the things Pitt has typically used to measure the size of the research enterprise is “external funding-only research expenditure,” what Rutenbar calls a “very precise and in some sense, straightforward universe, to look at: ‘Did I get an award from a federal sponsor?’” or foundation sponsoring research or a company sponsoring research? “’How much money did I spend in calendar 2021 or 2022?’ We add it all up. That's been the sort-of ramp that the chancellor has historically shown,” he said.
Acknowledging Pitt’s celebration last year of surpassing $1 billion in research-based expenditures, Rutenbar explained the “very particular measure there.”
“It was external funding being spent in a fiscal year … We actually had this in our annual report and all that other stuff. We said ‘Woohoo! We made $1.07 billion’ But the HERD number is actually bigger (and says) we made it to $1 billion a couple of years ago.”
That’s because the HERD number includes institutional research spending on things such as lab renovations for research fueled by a federal award, cost-sharing obligations including seed funding for startup packages, and training.
“If you take one thing away, it is that the NSF HERD survey is always the biggest number that we can report, because it's the research spend from people who fund us to do research,” Rutenbar said. “And then it's the money we spend on the side to build the infrastructure and make it possible, and it is the federally allowed biggest number you got,” which will probably be $1.2 billion the next time NSF HERD reports a number, in December 2023.
One surprise in the report was Ohio State going up $268 million, which Rutenbar called “astonishing.” He said Ohio State, after putting in place a new financial management system, came across a large set of institutional research expenditures that were not counted.
“That's kind of like going into the basement and taking the old couch and taking the cushions out and rooting around and finding a quarter of a billion dollars,” he said. “It's a very interesting narrative. But OK, good for them. As a result of that, they rocketed up to No. 12 (from around No. 25). But (Pitt is) top 20, and top 20 is a really good thing.”
Summarizing the overall good news from the latest rankings, Rutenbar said “being in the top 10 is wonderful, being in the top five is terrific. So, top three for the institution, top six for the med school are both wonderful accomplishments.”
A question came up about how increasing costs for research, including salary-related expenses, affect expenditure numbers and rankings. Rutenbar explained that “most awards have at least a slight prediction of what salary-related expenses are going to change, year over year.
“In addition, everybody else's costs are going up as well,” he said. “Johns Hopkins’ costs are not going up less than Pitt’s costs, right? Everybody's numbers are floating up a bit because things are more expensive, but nevertheless, we floated up from No. 9 to No. 6. That’s not inflation alone.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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