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The University of Arizona has slashed its growth targets in a key area for a research institution: research.

The Tucson school, historically the state’s top spender on university research, is expected to cede that position to Arizona State University within five years, a new forecast from the Arizona Board of Regents shows.

The UA’s total research spending, previously expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2020, is now predicted to be roughly half that — $654 million — by the turn of the decade, the forecast shows.

The slowdown dims what was thought to be a future bright spot for Tucson’s economy and the state as a whole.

Growth in university research spending “provides major returns to the state,” the regents’ website notes.

“Dollars spent on research and development activity are used to purchase local goods and services,” and help create new companies and jobs, the site also says.

The new predictions upend earlier forecasts of strong growth in UA research spending — the total the school can raise each year from government grants and other sources to fund its research activities.

Kimberly Espy, the UA’s senior vice president for research, said the school’s old growth projections were crafted around 2008, before the economic downturn hit and before the federal government started cutting back on research grants to universities.

“The expectations changed because the funding environment changed,” said Espy, who arrived at the UA in 2014.

She said the UA’s previous growth plan also relied on expectations that the state would provide the UA with $15 million a year for research for up to 10 years — funding that never materialized.

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The new UA forecast calls for much slower growth, which the school intends to achieve in part by pursuing new revenue sources such as corporate partnerships that bring in research dollars, UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson said.

ASU, meanwhile, left its 2020 research goals unchanged in the new 10-year forecast for the university system approved by the regents in November. If the forecast holds true, the Tempe-based school will surpass the UA in research spending by 2020 and remain in the top spot for at least the next five years.

ASU’s research spending is projected to jump from $481 million this year to $700 million by 2020. By 2025, ASU’s total is expected to be $815 million and the UA’s around $757 million.

ASU officials didn’t return calls Friday seeking comment on why they expect research dollars to keep flowing in. But the Tempe school has aggressively sought corporate partners, such as a $75 million deal inked in May with California-based NantWorks to create a research institute for molecular medicine in Phoenix.

Espy said even with the UA’s slower growth, it will still be among the nation’s top 20 public research universities. The UA faculty is highly skilled at attracting research funding, she said.

This year’s expected research spending of around $600 million works out to an average of about $400,000 per faculty member, she said. The UA’s new growth plan calls for adding faculty members in key research areas as funding becomes available.

Contact Carol Ann Alaimo at or 573-4138.


Carol Ann has been with the Star since 1999, but has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. She's won numerous awards in the U.S. and Canada. In 2003, she was a war correspondent in Iraq and was a Knight-Wallace Fellow in Michigan in 2008.