Characteristics of Science and Engineering Instrumentation in Academic Settings: 1993



Adequate instrumentation is absolutely necessary for world-class research, and keeping instrumentation current is a never ending task. Instrumentation purchase and upkeep are a considerable expense for the academic research enterprise. For example, in 1993, instrumentation purchases totaled an estimated $1.2 billion, and maintenance/repair cost more than $200 million. Over the past decade especially, instrumentation improvements have advanced so rapidly that equipment only two or three years old is often already obsolete for performing cutting-edge research.

Mandated by Congress in the early 1980s to monitor the status and future needs of academic research instrumentation, the National Science Foundation (NSF) developed a program anchored by the Survey of Academic Research Instruments and Instrumentation Needs (Instrumentation Survey). Co-funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Instrumentation Survey collected data from a panel of 79 institutions selected to represent the population of all colleges, universities, and medical schools that expend at least $3 million in research and development (R&D) funds annually. In 1993, there were 318 such institutions, and they had approximately 1,541 in-scope science and engineering (S&E) departments and research facilities under their jurisdiction. The Instrumentation Survey had two sets of respondents. This publication provides inventory data from the 1993 survey and also details changes in the stock of instrumentation since the last survey in 1988-89. It reports the results from the questionnaire sent to principal investigators who provided detailed status data about the research instrumentation in their care. A companion NSF publication reports the results from a questionnaire sent to department chairs and heads of facilities, who provided an overall assessment of the quality of their current instrumentation and future instrumentation needs.[1]

The 1993 Instrumentation Survey covered research instruments with an original purchase price of $20,000 or more in the following S&E fields: agriculture, biology, computer science, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics/astronomy, and engineering.[2] The survey excluded equipment assigned to any of the university-administered Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) as well as any assigned to laboratories that might be housed on a university campus but not administered by the university.

All data in this report are presented in current dollars (i.e., not adjusted for inflation).

Chapters I and II present information on the estimated total inventory of approximately 61,700 scientific and engineering research instruments with an original purchase price of $20,000 or more located at the 318 in-scope academic institutions. The aggregate cost of this inventory was $6.3 billion in 1993. Included in this total inventory discussion is information on approximately 150 specialized integrated systems, or "supersystems," which totaled $1.2 billion in aggregate cost. Chapter II gives detailed information on these supersystems.

Chapter III reports status information of research instruments, such as research capability, age, and usage patterns. The Instrumentation Survey did not collect status information on supersystems. Therefore, although they are included in the inventory discussions in Chapters I and II, supersystems are not included in Chapter III, which presents status data for the remaining approximately 61,500 instruments with an aggregate total cost of $5.1 billion in 1993.

Total Inventory of Research Instruments

Aggregate Stock of Instruments in 1993

In 1993, there were an estimated 61,700 items comprising the total national stock of S&E research instruments costing $20,000 or more located at the 318 represented academic institutions. The aggregate original cost of these instruments was $6.3 billion. The 1993 stock is categorized into the following types:

Computers and Data Handling Equipment (Computers)
In 1993, computers comprised 19 percent of the total number of research instruments (approximately 12,000). Their aggregate cost was $1.9 billion, 30 percent of the aggregate cost of all instrumentation.

Chromatographs and Spectrometers
This category comprised 22 percent (approximately 13,800) of the total number of instruments in 1993 and accounted for 21 percent ($1.3 billion) of the total aggregate cost of instruments.

Microscopy Instruments
The estimated 5,600 items in this category accounted for 9 percent of the total number of instruments as well as 9 percent of their total aggregate cost (approximately $550 million).

Bioanalytical Instruments
The estimated 10,200 items in this category accounted for 17 percent of the total number of instruments, a much larger percentage than their share of total aggregate cost: the approximately $470 million was just 7 percent of the total investment in instruments.

"Other" Instruments
This category was the largest in terms of number of pieces (approximately 20,100 or 33 percent of the total number of instruments) and aggregate cost ($2.1 billion, 34 percent of the total of all instruments). "Other" instruments was the title given to a miscellaneous grouping of instruments, none of which was large enough in both numbers and cost to constitute a separate major category.

However, there were large concentrations of homogeneous groupings of instruments in this category. For example, "other" instruments included approximately 7,000 electronics instruments and lasers combined, with an aggregate purchase price of approximately $425 million; this was 11 percent of the total number of instruments and 7 percent of total dollar cost. The combination of research vessels, telescopes, and other major instruments (including nuclear reactors, wind/wave/water/shock tunnels, and major prototype systems) comprised approximately 1,300 instruments and totaled almost $650 million (6 percent of total instruments and 10 percent of total cost). Also included in "other" instruments were items such as temperature/pressure control/measurement instruments, robots, and all instruments not included in any other category.

Change in the Stock of Instruments between 1988-89[3] and 1993

In the years between the latest two surveys, there were increases in every major category of instrument for both numbers of instruments and aggregate dollar amounts. The numbers of instruments costing at least $20,000 increased 30 percent between the two surveys—from about 47,300 in 1988-89 to 61,700 in 1993. There was a comparable increase of 43 percent in aggregate cost-from $4.5 billion to $6.3 billion. The median price of all in-stock instruments, however, decreased between the two surveys-from approximately $70,000 in 1988-89 to $65,000 in 1993.

Characteristics of Research Instruments in 1993[4]

The report also contains qualitative status data for all non-supersystem instruments with an original cost of at least $20,000. In 1993, this totaled an estimated 61,500 items of movable S&E research instruments. The aggregate cost of this stock was $5.1 billion.

Source of Funds

The Federal government provided approximately half of the cost of the instruments in research usage in 1993, approximately the same proportion of the funding for the aggregate stock of instruments in research use in 1988-89. Institutional funds continued to be the largest single non-Federal source of academic research instrumentation, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the total of aggregate cost in both survey years.

Assessment of Upkeep and Condition of the Aggregate Stock of Instruments

The respondents gave the following assessment of the condition of the instruments:

Overall, 64 percent of the instruments received excellent or above-adequate maintenance/repair in 1993, and only 8 percent of instruments received maintenance/repair that was less than adequate.

Working Condition
In general, respondents were satisfied with the working condition of the instruments in research usage in academic settings. Seventy-four percent of all instruments were judged to be in excellent or above-adequate working condition during the year. Only 6 percent were in less-than-adequate working condition.

Technical Capabilities
Overall, respondents were satisfied with the technical capabilities of the instruments to meet researchers' needs: 61 percent of the instruments were rated excellent or above adequate. Only 13 percent of instruments were rated as having technical capabilities that were below adequate or poor.

Rated Research Status of Instruments

Overall, 27 percent of the instruments in research usage in 1993 were rated by the respondents as state-of-the-art. An additional 63 percent were not state-of-the-art but were judged as adequate for the researchers' usage. Only 9 percent of instruments overall were rated inadequate for the research users' needs. State-of-the-art status was strongly associated with instrument age: as instruments become older, they are less likely to be rated as state-of-the-art.

Average Age of Research Instruments

Overall, about four of every 10 research instrument systems in use in 1993 had been acquired within the previous four years. On the other hand, almost one quarter (23 percent) of the instruments in active research use in 1993 were over eight years old. The average age of a research instrument was 5.8 years. Seventeen percent of all instruments costing less than $1 million were less than two years old in 1993, but only 7 percent of instruments over $1 million were that new.

Functional Usage of Research Instruments

Sixty-four percent of the instruments in research usage in 1993 were used exclusively for research. Most of the remaining instruments (32 percent) were utilized predominantly for research with some instructional use, and only 4 percent of the total were used primarily for instruction with some research usage.

Average Number of Users of Research Instruments

Overall, there were an average of 24.2 users per instrument system for research use in 1993. The largest single category of user—an average of 8.5 per instrument—was graduate students and post-doctorates assigned to the unit that owned the instrument (the host unit). On average, there were also 3.5 faculty users from the host unit, 6.0 researchers from other units in the host institution, 4.5 researchers from outside the host institution, and 1.8 other users (primarily staff and undergraduates).


[1] Academic Research Instruments: Expenditures 1993, Needs 1994 (NSF 96-324).

[2] The survey excluded mathematics, the clinical sciences, psychology, and the social sciences.

[3] In Cycle III, data for half of the fields were collected as of 1988 and half as of 1989. In Cycle IV, all fields were collected in a single effort, and all data reflect 1993 findings.

[4] The approximately 150 supersystems with an approximate aggregate cost of $1.2 billion are not included in the Characteristics discussion in Chapter III, although they were included in Chapters I and II.

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