America’s Best Universities For Social Science Research

At a time where many of our most pressing problems involve patterns of human behavior, the role of the social sciences has become increasingly vital. Whether it’s the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, a growing mistrust of institutions, increasing intergroup conflicts, the rise of antidemocratic ideology, the causes and consequences of poverty or the spread of preventable diseases, social science research is a crucial source for understanding and resolving these problems.

Where is cutting edge social science research being conducted In the U.S.? What are our best universities for research in fields such as Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology and Sociology.

One answer to that question can be found in the Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey, recently released by the National Science Foundation (NSF). That survey measures the dollars spent annually on research and development (R and D) at American colleges and universities.

The latest HERD Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, presents R&D expenditure data for fiscal year 2020, collected from 915 universities and colleges that grant a bachelor’s degree or higher and spent at least $150,000 in R&D in the prior fiscal year.

The HERD survey summarizes the federal, state, and other funds a university spends on all its research activities, and it also breaks those expenditures out by ten major fields: computer and information sciences; engineering; geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences; life sciences; mathematics and statistics; physical sciences; psychology; social sciences; other sciences; and non-science and engineering.

Here are the top ten universities ranked by research expenditures in each of five social science disciplines plus one category of miscellaneous social sciences (My thanks to Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and Katie Paquet, Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications at ASU for providing the tabular breakdowns of these data.The full set of data tables and technical information from the HERD survey can be found here.)


In fiscal year 2020, U. S. universities expended a total of $119. 3 million for research in Anthropology. The top ten institutions were (figures are in millions of dollars):

Arizona State University $14.9

University of Michigan $6.2

University of South Carolina $4.8

University at Buffalo (SUNY) $4.0

Texas A&M University $4.0

University of Oklahoma $4.0

University of Arizona $3.4

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee $2.8

University of Tennessee $2.5

Colorado State University $2.4


In fiscal year 2020, U. S. universities expended a total of $562.2 million for research in Economics. The top ten institutions were (in millions of dollars):

George Mason University $55.0

Harvard University $33.6

University of California, Berkeley $31.7

University of Michigan $31.1

Massachusetts Institute of Technology $30.8

Michigan State University $22.8

Teachers College, Columbia University $12.1

Purdue University $11.0

Georgia State University $11.0

University of California, Davis $10.2


A total of $1.36 billion was spent on research in Psychology in fiscal year 2020. The top ten universities were (in millions of dollars):

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $41.7

Pennsylvania State University $40.6

Florida International University $34.6

University of Minnesota $31.9

New York University $28.5

University of Georgia $25.8

University of Connecticut $21.6

Boston University $20.4

University of Michigan $20.4

San Diego State University $20.2

Political Science and Government

A total of $425.3 million was spent in these fields in fiscal year 2020. The top ten institutions (in millions of expended dollars) were:

Harvard University $41.8

Georgetown University $31.8

Princeton University $27.5

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor $25.5

Arizona State University $16.6

University of California, San Diego $12.8

University at Albany (SUNY) $12.4

Indiana University $12.2

University of California, Berkeley $9.4

Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis $7.8

Sociology Demography, and Population Studies

University expenditures for research in these fields totaled $591.8 million in fiscal year 2020. The top ten institutions were (in millions of dollars):

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $66.6

Indiana University $10.9

University of Colorado $10.3

Duke University $10.3

University of Nebraska-Lincoln $9.9

Purdue University $9.3

Cornell University $9.2

Columbia University $9.1

New York University $7.6

Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis $7.4

Other Social Sciences

Fiscal Year 2020 research expenditures in an array of other social science fields such as criminology, geography, and public policy topped $1.2 billion. The top ten universities in this miscellaneous category were:

University of Michigan $99.0

Harvard University $62.9

University of Southern California $57.2

University of Maryland $52.3

University of California, Los Angeles $42.3

Arizona State University $39.0

University of Wisconsin-Madison $36.4

Georgia Institute of Technology $31.1

Brown University $25.5

University of South Florida $25.4


Some interesting patterns in these rankings deserve mention.

  • First, in every field, the majority of the top ten institutions are public universities.
  • Across the various categories, the University of Michigan topped the list, attaining top ten status in five of the six social science areas.
  • Harvard University and Arizona State University placed in the top ten in three categories.
  • Five other institutions – Indiana University, Indiana University Purdue University (Indianapolis), New York University, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina – ranked in the top ten in two different fields.


Of course, research quality can be measured by other outcomes – publications in refereed journals, the number of PhD’s awarded, citation counts, scholarly awards, commercialization of intellectual property, and the post-degree careers of students. All of those measures are important indicators of impact.

But research expenditures have a particular value in judging an institution’s overall efforts and contributions to a research field. Because the largest share of funded grants are doled out only after a competitive process that involves peer review, R and D expenditures indicate a consensus opinion about the value of the proposed research work.

In addition, as Arizona State President Michael Crow observes, the wide range of institutions carrying out funded research is advantageous. “As the survey reveals, research on these topics is widely disbursed across many types of institutions throughout the country. There’s significant value in that kind of distribution – it allows for broad views and new ideas to emerge in these important research areas..”


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