What is Qualified Research?

When it comes to federal R&D tax credits, understanding what qualifies as research is crucial. Not all research activities meet the IRS criteria, and accurately identifying qualified research can lead to significant tax benefits for your business. This article will clarify what constitutes qualified research and provide guidance on how to identify it effectively.

The Four-Part Test

Qualified research, as defined by the IRS, refers to research activities that meet specific criteria. These activities must aim to develop new or improved business components, eliminate uncertainty, follow a process of experimentation and be technological in nature. Let's break down these criteria to better understand what qualified research entails.

1. Permitted Purpose

The research must aim to create a new or improved business component. This could involve enhancing a product's function, performance, reliability or quality. For instance, developing a new type of software that improves data processing speed or creating a more efficient manufacturing process both meet this criterion.

2. Elimination of Uncertainty

Qualified research must address uncertainty regarding the capability, method or design of the business component. If you are unsure whether a product or process can be developed or how to achieve a specific result, your research aims to eliminate this uncertainty. Technical uncertainty is key here.

3. Process of Experimentation

The research must include a process of experimentation. This involves systematic trial and error, iterative testing and evaluating hypotheses. For example, if your team is testing different materials to find the most durable option for a new product, you are engaging in a process of experimentation.

4. Technological in Nature

Finally, the research must be grounded in principles of a physical science, such as biology, chemistry, engineering or computer science. This means the research relies on scientific methods and principles.

Identifying Qualified Research Activities

Common Activities That Qualify

Developing New Products or Processes

This involves creating entirely new products or processes that have not existed before. Examples could include designing a new type of medical device that offers improved functionality over existing devices or developing a new manufacturing process that significantly enhances efficiency and reduces waste.

Improving Existing Products or Processes

Enhancements to current products or processes can qualify if they involve overcoming technical uncertainties. Think of activities like upgrading the software features of an existing product platform to improve its performance or modifying a manufacturing production process to increase yield. Note that these improvements must involve substantial technical challenges.

Prototyping and Testing New Designs

Creating prototypes and testing them through a process of experimentation qualifies as research. This could involve building a prototype for a new machine and conducting various tests to evaluate its performance, identify potential issues and refine its design.

Developing or Enhancing Software Applications

Software development qualifies when it involves overcoming technical uncertainties. Qualifying activities may include developing a new software application that uses advanced algorithms to process large datasets more efficiently or enhancing an existing software program to add new features that require significant technical expertise and innovation.

Activities That Do Not Qualify

Routine Data Collection or Testing

Activities that involve collecting data or testing without addressing technical uncertainties do not qualify. These activities are things like regularly collecting performance data to ensure equipment is operating correctly or routinely testing products to ensure they meet established quality standards.

Market Research to Assess Consumer Preferences

Market research activities that aim to understand consumer needs, preferences or market trends are not considered qualified research.

Quality Control Checks to Ensure Product Standards

Routine quality control activities that ensure products meet existing specifications do not qualify. These activities are essential for maintaining product quality but do not involve the process of experimentation needed to qualify as research.

Documentation and Recordkeeping Requirements

Proper documentation is critical for substantiating qualified research activities. Maintaining detailed records helps support your claims and ensures compliance with IRS regulations.

Types of Documentation Needed

Project Descriptions

  • Project proposals

  • Research plans

  • Objective statements

  • Methodology outlines

  • Project summaries

Technical Reports

  • Lab notebooks

  • Technical memos

  • Test reports

  • Data analysis reports

  • Experiment logs

  • Final technical summaries

Experimentation Records

  • Trial logs

  • Iteration logs

  • Hypothesis testing records

  • Experimental setup documentation

  • Observation records

  • Modification notes

Time Tracking and Expense Reports

  • Timesheets

  • Time tracking labor reports

  • Expense reports

  • Receipts for materials and supplies

  • Invoices for equipment and software

  • Budget summaries


Understanding and identifying qualified research is essential for maximizing the benefits of federal R&D tax credits. By following the IRS criteria and ensuring proper documentation, businesses can confidently claim eligible research activities.

Engineered Tax Services is here to help you navigate this complex process. Our team of experts can assist in identifying qualified research activities, maintaining compliance and optimizing your R&D tax credits. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and ensure you're making the most of your research investments.

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