Two women wearing lab coats, face masks, and rubber gloves in a research lab.
The National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development fiscal year 2021 survey, released Thursday, ranks VCU as No. 50 in the country for fiscal research expenditures. (Photo by John Wallace, VCU School of Dentistry)

VCU breaks into top 50 of public research universities in the U.S.

New ranking from the National Science Foundation is achieved ahead of the schedule set by the university.

Share this story

Bolstered in part by the intense drive to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Commonwealth University now ranks among the top 50 public research universities in the United States for the first time.

The National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development fiscal year 2021 survey, released Thursday, ranks VCU as No. 50 in the country for fiscal research expenditures. Reaching this ranking comes well ahead of the timeline set out by VCU’s Quest 2028 goals. VCU ranked No. 58 last year.

“The importance of this achievement is more than just hitting a target number,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System. “The NSF ranking shows where VCU stands related to our peers and more importantly, to how far and fast we’ve come. Our growth is one of the fastest among Virginia universities and demonstrates our impact and continued success and stature as a public research university committed to transformative innovation. We are in a unique position to influence the long-term economic, social and physical health and well-being of the communities we serve.”

“Our new ranking reflects the talented researchers and scholars who conduct collaborative, transformational and outstanding research, as well as the engagement of VCU’s dedicated staff, postdoctoral trainees and students who help facilitate VCU's increased national and global prominence,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU.

The National Science Foundation calculates expenditures based on the portion of awarded research grants from various institutions, initiatives, endowments and foundations spent in a fiscal year. The remaining grant amounts carry over to future years. In this annual survey, the NSF defines research and development funding as expenditures from all funding types related to creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge, including STEM, health, arts and humanities faculty.

The NSF HERD ranking typically follows the announcement of total sponsored programs activity by 12 to 18 months. In FY21, VCU received a then-institutional record $363 million in sponsored program activity. Industry funding accounted for $56.6 million, including $32.5 million for clinical trials. Earlier this fall, VCU announced that the university had passed the $400 million mark for sponsored program activities, and VCU’s finalized total for FY22 is now $405.6 million, a nearly 50% increase from FY18.

“I expect our current upward trend in sponsored funding to continue,” Vice President Rao. “This means that more students and other trainees will have the opportunity to contribute to research led by our top faculty and outstanding scholars in various fields of arts, engineering, humanities, social sciences and medicine. They can in turn engage with the community and share newly acquired knowledge to promote innovation for the public good.”

VCU’s inventive faculty have a strong impact on Richmond, Virginia and beyond. In FY 2021, 27 patents were issued and 24 inventions were licensed or optioned, with seven start-ups launched, to advance transformative innovation and enhance the economic and social well-being of the region. One such licensed invention is a potentially life-saving therapeutic that could work against variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The new ranking recognizes the university’s investment in research aligned with the four initiatives that ground the One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan, designed to capitalize on VCU strengths to shape the future through transformative innovation. For example, the university earlier this year encouraged team-based efforts among VCU’s diverse community of research leaders on its campuses, including VCUarts Qatar, providing nearly $4.4 million in new internal funding to 55 transdisciplinary projects to address societal grand challenges.

Based on federally financed research and development expenditures for FY21, several of VCU’s research areas featured in the top 100 of the national rankings among all public research universities and include:

  • No. 1: Visual and performing arts
  • No. 7: Non-science / engineering fields
  • No. 13: Education
  • No. 31: Social work
  • No. 34: Health sciences
  • No. 35: Psychology
  • No. 37: Department of Health and Human Services
  • No. 41: Biological and biomedical sciences
  • No. 45: Life sciences
  • No. 58: Expenditures in science and engineering fields
  • No. 66: Computer and information sciences
  • No. 82: Engineering 

In FY 2021, VCU received a $16 million gift to the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research aimed at fostering collaborative science and health care research among VCU investigators and students. New federal funding that year also allowed VCU’s oyster shell recycling program to expand the community project into Northern Virginia, helping to replace oyster beds that play a critical role in sustaining the Chesapeake Bay.

VCU received several impactful federal grant renewals to address societal challenges. One such renewal funds the pursuit of developing a drug to target a specific, tumor-growing protein that causes pancreatic cancer. Another renewal continues VCU’s investigations into the genetic components of alcohol use disorder. VCU’s Medicines for All Institute is partnering with a Richmond-based firm, Phlow Corp., on a $354 million federal contract to secure the domestic pharmaceutical supply chain.

“The foundation of our strength is our collaborative community of field-shapers with diverse experiences among our three campuses, including VCUarts Qatar,” Vice President Rao said. “We see this in the effort going into the creation of the new Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health. Collaboration among disciplines is essential for achieving transformative innovation that impacts our community, nation and even our world.”