The University of Texas at San Antonio hit a research milestone this year, spending more on research initiatives than ever and pushing the university closer to becoming a nationally recognized top-tier research institution, UTSA announced Wednesday.

The university spent $134 million on research in its 2020 fiscal year, more than any of its previous 51 years in operation. The record-breaking research expenditures mean UTSA is “poised to become” a Research I, or R1, university, the highest ranking bestowed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions, said Bernard Arulanandam, UTSA vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise.

The university would be the first in San Antonio to hold the R1 distinction, if Carnegie approves the classification change. It would join a handful of other Texas universities designated as R1, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at El Paso, Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas Tech University, and the University of North Texas.

The expenditures represent research awards granted to UTSA by the federal or state government, as well as local and private entities that fund research projects, Arulanandam said. UTSA increased research expenditures 66 percent from the $80.6 million the university spent in fiscal year 2019 and received 366 new awards totaling $100 million.

“As a public-serving institution, we have a common good to provide back to society, to find ways to solve grand challenges, and that’s what a public research institution should do,” he said. “That’s what we are doing.”

The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education classifies institutions as R1 or having “very high research activity” if they awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees and spent at least $5 million on all research activities, according to its website. UTSA is classified as an R2 institution right now, a step below R1.

Arulanandam said UTSA would not know whether it’s advanced in its research classification until late 2021 or early 2022. But, he said, the fact that the university had received more research funding aligns with its goal to become a “powerhouse research enterprise” that serves the city, state, and the world.

UTSA received its largest research award from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch the $111 million Cyber Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which opened late last month. The research institute focuses on cybersecurity, energy efficiency, and the creation of manufacturing jobs.

But the university received research awards in several disciplines, including engineering, national security, health disparities, and public health, Arulanandam said.

“Research really informs us, and research is a conduit to solve problems,” he said, “but it’s also a means to provide great opportunities for our students.”

Arulanandam said UTSA has steadily increased the number of doctoral degrees students earn over the past several years as the university works to enhance its graduate education program. Carnegie considers this when classifying research institutions, and if UTSA becomes R1, that designation will attract more students and faculty to the university and San Antonio, he said.

Students are vital to the research process, working with faculty and staff to develop ideas that may become tangible objects that transform and enhance people’s lives, such as gadgets or musical scores, Arulanandam said.

“We are transforming to be a research enterprise that really is meant to tackle societal challenges, and that’s how we shape our research,” he said. “That’s how we train our students, and that’s what our faculty work on.”

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.