Michigan’s big three research universities kept up with their peers during the past decade in graduating talent, but lagged in commercializing innovations stemming from research.
That’s according to data in an annual report that benchmarks how the University Research Corridor — consisting of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — compares to seven other academic research clusters in the U.S.
The URC placed third overall in an “innovation power ranking” that combines metrics for talent, research spending, and technology transfer into a composite score.
In individual categories, the URC ranked second for talent generation, fifth in research spending, and seventh in technology transfer, according to the annual report that used data from 2016 and was compiled by Anderson Economic Group LLC, an East Lansing-based research firm.
Consistent with prior years, the 2018 report shows the URC has grown along with the top research clusters in the nation as Michigan emerged from the deep economic downturn of nearly a decade ago and sought to transition its economy, said Britany Affolter-Caine, the URC’s interim executive director.
“The reality is we are pretty consistent. Year over year, we’re holding steady and we remain competitive, and it is extremely competitive with these other clusters,” Affolter-Caine said. “A lot of these metrics, they’re not a direct reflection of just our performance, but also our state and where we’re at.”
The URC historically scores best in the benchmark study on talent. It ranked first in this year’s report for undergraduate and graduate enrollment at 154,915 students combined, versus 149,934 a decade earlier, and second to southern California in bachelor and advanced degrees conferred.
Affolter-Caine notes that southern California edged the URC in 2016 by just 127 degrees conferred, and that Texas ranked third by only 181 degrees. In contrast to Michigan, Texas and southern California are in areas that have both a growing population and an expanding pool of prospective students graduating high school.
“They just have more high school graduates coming up to pull from,” she said.
Specifically, MSU, U-M and Wayne State led in the number of medical and biological science degrees awarded and ranked fourth in high-tech degrees. They ranked third in degrees for the highdemand fields of business, engineering and computer science.
Among benchmarks for research and development, the URC led the eight clusters with 53 percent growth in spending from 2007 to 2016. Despite that increase, URC universities ranked just fifth with $2.3 billion in R&D expenditures in 2016.
Within Michigan, URC universities accounted for 92 percent of all academic R&D in 2016 and 94 percent of all federally funded academic R&D in the state.
Compared to their peer clusters, MSU, U-M and Wayne State ranked relatively well in attracting federal research funding: 53 percent of the academic research URC universities conducted was backed by federal dollars.
However, URC lags peer clusters for private-sector research funding. Just 4 percent of the 2016 R&D expenditures were for research conducted at the universities by the private sector. That’s the second-lowest percentage within the peer group, ranking only above the 3 percent in Pennsylvania and well below leader North Carolina at 13 percent.
The URC’s comparatively low level of industry-sponsored academic R&D shows that members need to do even more to connect with companies for research work and to partner with the private sector, Affolter-Caine said.
“We’re not connecting with industry at the level of our peer clusters when it comes to getting business support and partnerships for research,” she said. “That is really hard (to do) because we have different goals sometimes that don’t align and so on, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done because these other clusters are doing it.”
Affolter-Caine was unsure why URC universities don’t do better in industry-sponsored academic research, although all three schools do have business engagement offices that share information and best practices and work with companies.
URC universities also are spinning out more startup companies, but they ranked a comparatively low seventh among their peers from 2012 to 2016 with an annual average of 16 startups, and were last in 2016 with 20.