Princeton research activity hits new milestone

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
April 12, 2023

Princeton University marked the highest level of research activity in its history as measured by spending on research in areas ranging from cancer to climate change to pioneering quantum sciences. The University conducted research activities with associated expenditures of more than $404.4 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the most recent National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey.

“Our researchers are making discoveries that benefit the planet and people’s lives, as well as exploring the big, curiosity-driven questions about the nature of the world and the universe around us,” said Princeton Dean for Research Pablo G. Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering. “The growth of our research activity means that Princeton continues to build its capacity to operate in the service of humanity.”

NSF’s HERD survey provides an annual snapshot of research expenditures by major universities across the nation. The $404.4 million in research spending places Princeton in the top 10% of the 910 universities surveyed.

Princeton conducts a large and diverse amount of research for a relatively small university without a medical school, where a significant portion of research at peer schools takes place, said Elizabeth Adams, director of Princeton’s Office of Research and Project Administration, which oversees sponsored research at the University.

The University’s external research funding comes primarily from federal awards, followed by foundation and industrial awards. According to the 2021 HERD survey, federal agencies supplied $205 million; foundations and nonprofits, $57.7 million; and industry, $20.2 million.

Princeton also contributes significant expenditures on research, including support for new faculty and their research teams, scientific equipment and research facilities, and funding for new investigations across a range of disciplines.

“Conducting — and funding — world-changing research is part of Princeton’s identity,” Adams said. “The University attracts significant funding on a competitive basis from sponsors and collaborators, and it invests large amounts of its own funding in research. This results in a state-of-the-art environment that attracts the very best faculty and graduate students, and furthers our capability to create and disseminate knowledge into society.”

Examples of Princeton research activities include projects across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences.

  • Princeton’s role as a leader in modeling the Earth’s climate and extreme events is demonstrated by funding for two Bioenergy Research Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System, a collaboration between Princeton and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.
  • In 2021, Princeton expanded its cancer research collaborations, welcoming to campus a new branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Focused on the role of metabolism in preventing and treating cancer, the Ludwig Princeton Branch draws on Princeton’s strengths in basic cancer research, genomics, and computational and physical sciences.
  • Research in quantum sciences and engineering grew significantly over the last few years with the creation of the Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and featuring 27 institutions including national labs, industry and academia.
  • Ongoing support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has fueled State Health and Value Strategies, a program focused on assisting states with transforming their health care systems to be affordable, equitable and innovative.
  • Princeton and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace are collaborating to counter threats to the global information environment. Funded by several foundation and corporate partners, the Institute for Research on the Information Environment is creating a large-scale shared infrastructure that brings together researchers from around the world to speed discoveries and spur evidence-based policy solutions.

Princeton’s institutional contributions to research include “innovation” funds that allow researchers to pursue bold new ideas that may not be ready for funding through federal agencies. For example, the Dean for Research Innovation Fund’s investment of $7.9 million from 2014-2020 in 53 new research projects led to 109 scholarly publications, 7 patents pending or issued, and more than $22 million in subsequent funding from external sources.

Diversifying sources of research funding has been a priority for Princeton, according to Coleen Burrus, director of Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations. “Each type of funding — government, industry and nonprofit — brings unique benefits and has a role to play in supporting research. It is good to see the University’s efforts to develop nongovernmental sources come to fruition and be reflected in the HERD survey data.”

In addition to the expenditures tallied in the HERD survey, the University oversees a significant level of research activity at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by the University. In fiscal year 2021, the Department of Energy allocated $138 million for PPPL research, which focuses on fusion energy, microelectronics, quantum computing, and sustainability.

The success of Princeton researchers at attracting federal funding reflects well on the University’s reputation as a top-tier research institution, said Karla Ewalt, senior associate dean for research. Over the past decade, Princeton has seen a doubling of federal proposals and awards over $2 million, and now more than 40% of Princeton’s federally funded research spending now comes from awards over $2 million. 

These awards are often collaborations and multi-disciplinary initiatives, within Princeton or with other institutions, Ewalt said.

“These large-scale grants highlight our faculty’s collaborative spirit,” Ewalt said, “as they work both across departments within the University as well as with researchers across New Jersey, the nation and the world.”