America’s Best Universities for Social Science Research

In an age when many of our most pressing problems involve models of human behavior, the role of the social sciences has become increasingly vital. Whether it is the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, a growing mistrust of institutions, the proliferation of intergroup conflicts, the rise of undemocratic ideology, the causes and consequences poverty or the spread of preventable diseases, social science research is a crucial source for understanding and solving these problems.

Where is cutting-edge social science research conducted in the United States? What are our top universities for research in areas such as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

An answer to this question can be found in the Higher Education Research and Development Survey (HERD), recently published by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This survey measures the dollars spent each year on research and development (R&D) at US colleges and universities.

The latest HERD survey, sponsored by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics of the National Science Foundation, presents data on R&D spending for fiscal year 2020, collected from 915 universities and colleges that award bachelor’s degrees or above and have spent at least $ 150,000 on R&D in the previous fiscal year.

The HERD survey summarizes the federal, state, and other funds that a university spends on all of its research activities, and it also divides these expenditures into ten main areas: computer and information science; engineering; geosciences, atmospheric sciences and ocean sciences; life sciences; mathematics and statistics; physical science; psychology; Social Sciences; other sciences; and non-science and engineering.

Here are the top ten universities ranked by research expenditure in each of the five social science disciplines plus one miscellaneous social science category (My thanks to Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and Katie Paquet, senior advisor for strategic communications to ASU for providing tabular breakdowns of these data The full set of data tables and technical information from the HERD survey can be found here.)


In fiscal 2020, universities in the United States spent 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 of 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 2020, US universities spent a total of $ 562.2 million on 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

University of Michigan $ 22.8

College of Teachers, 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 psychology research 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 areas in FY2020. The top ten institutions (in millions of dollars spent) 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 of Albany (SUNY) $ 12.4

Indiana University $ 12.2

University of California, Berkeley $ 9.4

Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis $ 7.8

Sociology Demography and demographic studies

University spending for research in these areas totaled $ 591.8 million in FY2020. The top ten institutions were (in $ millions):

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 2020 research spending in a range of other areas of the social sciences such as criminology, geography and public policy exceeded $ 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

Brunette college $ 25.5

University of South Florida $ 25.4


Some interesting models in these rankings are worth mentioning.

  • First, across the board, the majority of the top ten institutions are public universities.
  • In the various categories, the University of Michigan tops the list, reaching the top ten in five of the six social science fields.
  • Harvard University and Arizona State University made 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 University of North Carolina – ranked in the top ten in two different areas.


Of course, the quality of research can be measured by other outcomes – publications in peer-reviewed journals, number of doctorates awarded, number of citations, scholarly awards, commercialization of intellectual property, and students’ post-graduation careers. . All of these measures are important indicators of impact.

But research expenditures have a particular value in judging the efforts and overall contributions of an institution to a field of research. Since the majority of funded grants are only distributed after a competitive process involving peer review, R&D spending indicates a consensus opinion on the value of the proposed research work.

Also, as Arizona State President Michael Crow observes, the wide range of institutions that conduct funded research is beneficial. “As the survey reveals, research on these topics is widely distributed in many types of institutions across the country. There is significant value in this type of distribution – it allows broad perspectives and new ideas to emerge in these important areas of research. “

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