In Depth: Annual Survey Reveals ASU Is among Fastest-Growing Top Research Institutions in the Nation
Arizona State University’s continued commitment to being one of the nation’s top research universities has allowed its faculty to make important advances in space exploration, the knowledge-based economy and future workforce development, microelectronics research and manufacturing, and to improve the health and wellness of the communities it serves.
ASU’s research enterprise has leaped forward again, according to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey. With $797.2 million in research expenditures for fiscal year 2022, ASU ranked No. 38 overall (out of 899 institutions), a jump of four places from the prior fiscal year. ASU ranked in the top 4% for all universities with research expenditures, ahead of the University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Purdue University and the University of Colorado-Boulder.
The 18% growth rate from FY21 ($677.7 million) was among the largest for the top 50 research universities in the country, according to the HERD Survey.
“ASU’s dynamic growth in research reflects our unwavering commitment to innovation, excellence and collaborations,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “This achievement is a testament to the dedication of our exceptional faculty, students, staff and partnerships that are advancing ASU to the forefront of transformative research.”
NSF’s annual HERD Survey collects and ranks research expenditure information from hundreds of institutions nationwide. It is the official NSF report on expenditures within higher education institutions in the United States and outlying areas from the previous academic fiscal year, which was from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.
ASU receives funding for research from federal agencies, state and local grants, businesses and other private organizations, which is often awarded over multiyear periods. Research expenditures — the amount of funding an institution spends in a particular year — provide the most effective way to measure and compare the vitality of research enterprises.
According to the HERD Survey, ASU ranked No. 21 among all U.S. public institutions (out of 410), ahead of the University of California, Irvine; the University of Colorado; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
For institutions without a medical school (ASU is currently launching a new medical school), ASU ranked No. 5 (out of 310 institutions), ahead of Purdue University, Princeton University and the California Institute of Technology. Excluding medical school expenditures, ASU ranked No. 14 overall (out of 637 institutions) among all universities in research expenditures.
During the past two decades, ASU has increased the scale and scope of its research activity nearly six times over. ASU’s research achievements were further recognized earlier this year when ASU joined the Association of American Universities, which comprises the nation’s elite research universities.
Other data included in the HERD Survey were ASU’s continued top ranks in federal research expenditures, including being No. 8 in spending of NASA funds (out of 447 institutions), ahead of the University of California, Berkeley; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the University of Michigan. ASU ranked No. 8 (out of 422 institutions) for spending of health and human services funds among institutions without a medical school, ahead of Princeton, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Colorado-Boulder. ASU ranked No. 17 (out of 597 institutions) in NSF-funded expenditures, ahead of the University of Chicago, UCLA and Harvard.
The university’s sponsored expenditures from state and local government also increased dramatically, to No. 7 (out of 528 institutions), a jump of 19 spots in FY22. Globally, ASU ranked No. 23 (out of 345 institutions) in foreign sources of expenditures.
ASU also achieved top rankings of expenditures within many academic disciplines, including:
- No. 1 (out of 248) in anthropology, ahead of the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Arizona.
- No. 1 (out of 258) in transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and other sciences, ahead of Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pittsburgh and Ohio State University.
- No. 2 (out of 548) in non-science and engineering, ahead of the University of Kansas, Florida State University and Georgia State University.
- No. 2 (out of 454) in education, ahead of Harvard University, Stanford University and MIT.
- No. 2 (out of 390) in business management and business administration, ahead of Harvard University; University of California, Berkeley; and Cornell University.
- No. 3 (out of 490) in social sciences, ahead of the University of Southern California, MIT and Penn State.
- No. 3 (out of 359) in geological and earth sciences, ahead of the California Institute of Technology, the University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University.
- No. 5 (out of 345) in political science and government, ahead of the University of Southern California, Indiana University and University of California, Berkeley.
- No. 6 (out of 272) in civil engineering, ahead of Stanford University, MIT and Georgia Tech.
- No. 7 (out of 326) in visual and performing arts, ahead of the University of Arizona, Princeton University and the University of Michigan.
- No. 9 (out of 412) in humanities, ahead of the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Georgia.
- No. 11 (out of 199) in social work, ahead of Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- No. 12 (out of 153) in industrial and manufacturing engineering, ahead of Stanford University, the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University.
- No. 12 (out of 294) in electrical, electronic and communications engineering, ahead of Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Southern California.
ASU has a history of rapidly growing its research capacity, helping to alleviate the effects of climate change as well as advancing new scientific fields. In FY22, ASU’s research enterprise continued its commitment to exploration — from the Earth’s oceans to the hypothesized former oceans of Mars. ASU’s rapid bioscience expansion resulted in new treatments for children with autism. And with the nation’s largest cohort of engineering students, ASU has taken on the challenge of helping the U.S. to regain the leading edge of microelectronics research and manufacturing in producing the chips that are ubiquitous in today’s smartphones, cars and appliances.
Here are a few of the funded research projects at ASU:
Eyes on Mars
A team of ASU scientists oversee a sophisticated camera system on board NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. This vital instrument, Mastcam-Z, is a dual-camera system that is the “eyes” of the rover. It can zoom, take 3D images and videos, and create panorama photos in up to 11 distinct colors. The camera system is led by Professor Jim Bell at the School of Earth and Space Exploration.
The cameras are designed to support experiments by the rover. The Mars 2020 science mission is to collect rock and sediment samples for future return to Earth, search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the moon.
To produce the images and bring them back to Earth, Mastcam-Z is supported by a team of scientists, engineers, operations specialists, managers and students from ASU and around the world.
“I get to look at these images from the Martian surface and apply the lens of my own geologic knowledge to point out patterns in what we’re seeing or features that stand out,” said Mohini Jodhpurkar, an ASU geological sciences PhD student who works in mission operations. “It’s really cool, and at the same time, humbling to be a part of something so much bigger than myself and to constantly be learning through the process.”
One surprising find so far was the discovery of volcanic rock where scientists expected to find lake bed sediment. Jezero Crater was chosen as the landing site of the Perseverance rover, because it’s on an ancient lake bed where there might be signs of ancient microscopic life. The sediments may be there beneath the volcanic rock; future investigations are sure to give more insights into our neighboring planet.
Out to sea
In October 2021, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) became part of ASU. For 120 years, BIOS researchers have led long-term programs to monitor the Atlantic Ocean and address the environmental issues it faces. It’s home to the world’s longest-running time series for physical and chemical oceanographic data, the Hydrostation “S” program.
Access to high-tech equipment, like the Atlantic Explorer research vessel, provides scientists with a platform for conducting studies of the open ocean. The ocean plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and global excess heat; understanding how it operates and adjusts to increasing environmental pressures can help us understand the planet’s response to human-induced change.
Professor Susanne Neuer, director of the School of Ocean Futures, studies microscopic algae called phytoplankton that mostly live in the upper layer of the ocean’s waters. Collaborating with BIOS, Neuer uses special equipment aboard the Atlantic Explorer to collect open-ocean seawater samples that capture specimens of these tiny creatures.
Through photosynthesis, marine phytoplankton use sunlight to absorb carbon dioxide that has dissolved into the water and convert it into carbon in their bodies. Neuer is interested in phytoplankton’s role in the carbon cycle and how they’re affected by the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and other factors.
“When most people think of the ocean, they think of large creatures, like whales, dolphins or turtles,” Neuer said. “But in reality, the ocean is run by microbes. The enormous importance of these tiny organisms is unbelievable.”
In fact, it may be the smallest of plankton, picocyanobacteria, that prove to be the most crucial in the ocean’s future. These plankton can thrive in low-light and low-nutrient conditions. As the ocean warms, hardy picocyanobacteria can keep that critical carbon-absorbing function running.
New therapy gives hope
Autism is a familiar disorder that affects one in 36 children in the U.S., while Pitt-Hopkins syndrome is a rare genetic disease characterized by physical, intellectual and developmental delays. Both are commonly associated with painful gastrointestinal symptoms.
The treatment, called microbiota transplant therapy (MTT), aims to improve these chronic symptoms. It works by using antibiotics to eliminate bad bacteria from the intestines and then replacing it with healthy bacteria. This approach was inspired by the discovery that kids with autism have different gut microbiomes than kids without autism.
“We found a significant number were missing beneficial microbes in the autistic population, which gave us a really good justification to do a microbiota transplant study, adding beneficial microbes to increase diversity,” says Professor Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, director of the Biodesign Center for Health Through Microbiomes. She co-invented MTT with Professor James Adams, director of the ASU Autism/Asperger’s Research Program.
Initial trials of MTT demonstrated that it significantly improves gastrointestinal symptoms, core autism symptoms and bacteria diversity up to two years after treatment.
Along with the studies with autism patients, the ASU team also did a small study of MTT for children with Pitt-Hopkins. All children showed improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms, earning the researchers the FDA’s orphan drug designation and rare pediatric disease designation for Pitt-Hopkins syndrome.
The researchers were granted a patent for MTT by the U.S. Patent Office and are currently conducting randomized clinical trials. They formed the company Gut-Brain Axis Therapeutics Inc. to raise funds for the next trial phase as they ultimately pursue FDA approval.
“It will affect the technology that lives in cellphones, in your smartwatch, in your camera, the information systems in your car, and it could make all of this tech less expensive, more energy efficient and more powerful,” said Professor Daniel Bliss, who directs the Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures.
Heterogeneous computer processors boost performance and energy efficiency on a single, integrated circuit by using multiple types of processors specialized for specific tasks. However, they are notoriously difficult to program, so Bliss and his team at the center aim to provide software tools and on-chip intelligence to dramatically simplify their use.
The effort, called the Domain-Focused Advanced Software-Reconfiguration Heterogeneous Domain-Specific System On-Chip project, has implications for retooling U.S. electronics manufacturing to be more competitive on the world stage and to abate challenges to electronics security.
The center is also developing radio chips that can mix and filter signals using software instead of hardware, allowing more devices to transmit and receive signals without interference — potentially improving mobile and satellite communications.
Building on this work, the center is part of a second project called the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) to develop low-cost, high-speed, configurable optical data links.
Optical link processor technology allows satellites to exchange large quantities of data, which is a boon for space communications. These optical links will connect low-Earth-orbit satellites with each other as well as their Earth-bound proprietors, including the military, government, corporate and private sectors.
In general, better embedded processing developed at ASU will improve many areas of daily life, including commercial devices, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, sensing and radar technologies, and biomedical devices.
A brighter tomorrow
ASU’s research enterprise is a key component to building a brighter future for Arizona and the nation. A recent Financial Times report also underscored the success of ASU’s research endeavors, referring to ASU as a “secret weapon” in how a university bolstered Phoenix’s rise as a U.S. chip capital and ASU’s role in building a skilled labor force.
“We’re not just advancing knowledge or redefining a sustainable, thriving future; we’re actively shaping it for the betterment of society and the world at large,” Morton said.