Characteristics of Science and Engineering Instrumentation in Academic Settings: 1993


Survey Background and Scope of this Report


Adequate instrumentation is indispensable in performing cutting-edge research. During the late 1970s, reports came before Congress suggesting that the capability of the research instrumentation that was available to scientists and engineers at leading research universities was often inadequate to meet their needs. It was feared that this might seriously weaken the quality of the nation's academic research. Desiring national data on the issue, Congress directed NSF to "develop indices, correlates, or other suitable measures or indicators of the status of scientific instrumentation in the United States and of the current and projected needs for scientific and technological instrumentation" (Public Law 96-44, Section 7). The National Survey of Academic Research Instruments and Instrumentation Needs (Instrumentation Survey) was developed to fulfill this Congressional mandate. The Instrumentation Survey was conducted by NSF and cosponsored by NIH.

To date, there have been four cycles of the Instrumentation Survey. With slight additions to coverage in 1985-86, information has been collected from the same panel of institutions since 1982.[1] This panel of 79 institutions was selected from and represents the population of all universities, colleges, and medical schools that each annually perform a minimum of $3 million in R&D. For the 1993 survey, 318 such institutions existed in the population; there were approximately 1,541 in-scope departments and research facilities in these institutions in the science and engineering fields covered by this survey: agriculture; biology; chemistry; computer science; environmental sciences;[2] physics/astronomy; and engineering.[3]

The Instrumentation Survey excluded as outside the scope of the study equipment assigned to any of the university-administered FFRDCs as well as any assigned to laboratories that might be housed on a university campus but not administered by the university. Medical schools are included in the Instrumentation Survey, but their clinical departments and non-medical health professional schools are excluded.

The Instrumentation Survey focused on four main aspects of academic research instrumentation:

There are two basic types of questionnaires connected with the Instrumentation Survey, each collecting information from different sources.

For the first two cycles of this survey, data were collected only for instruments with an original purchase price between $10,000 and $999,999. Instruments costing $1 million and over were added to the survey beginning in 1988-89; the data for certain large instrument systems were collected via a more limited questionnaire: the Supersystem Data Sheet. The Supersystem Data Sheets collected primarily inventory-type information and did not collect status data, such as the adequacy of the instrument system for research or its usage pattern.

The latest Instrumentation Survey, covering instruments in inventory in 1993, was conducted in 1994. It provided the basis for three primary reports. This report describes the findings from both the Instrument and Supersystem Data Sheets and analyzes the status of the stock of research instrumentation from the perspective of the principal investigators (PIs), because the individual instrument items were assigned to them. A companion NSF report based on the Department/Facility Questionnaire analyzes overall instrumentation expenditures and needs from the perspective of the heads of both departments and major academic facilities.[6]

A separate integrated report published by NIH, Academic Research Instruments and Instrumentation Needs in the Biological Sciences: 1994,[7] draws data from both survey questionnaires and gives a more detailed analysis of the overall biology field and the seven major subfields of the biological sciences.[8]

Data Considerations for this Report

NOTE: Throughout this report, the words "instrument" and "instrument system" are used interchangeably to denote a single research instrument (or integrated group of items effectively comprising one single instrument) with an original purchase price of at least $20,000. The words "instruments," "instrumentation," and "equipment" may be used interchangeably to denote more than one instrument.

Inventory-related information on the number and aggregate purchase price of the instruments, derived principally from internal inventories of the institutions, is available for all instruments. The 79 participating institutions first submitted an inventory of the research instruments in the in-scope S&E departments and facilities (units), from which a sample of in-scope instruments was chosen. The PIs to whom each sampled instrument was assigned were then asked to fill out an Instrument Data Sheet for each sampled instrument, first verifying all inventory information and adding the cost of any peripheral dedicated accessories that might not have been captured on the inventory.

Status-related information about the sampled instruments was also derived from these Instrument Data Sheets. When instruments costing $1 million or more were added to the survey in 1988-89, however, the same status information could not be collected for all of the added instruments. For the following reasons, a new survey questionnaire was developed.

Inventories from the institutions revealed that there were a number of large, specialized pieces of academic equipment which effectively consisted of a single large instrument system of interconnected components and accessories (such as a nuclear reactor, computer center, observatory, or oceanographic research vessel). On many campuses, these large instrument systems are administered just like any other instruments within the academic unit, and they are listed in an inventory. Status data for these items could be collected via the survey's extant Instrument Data Sheets.

On other campuses, however, the exact same type of integrated instrument system is administered as virtually indistinguishable from the academic unit itself.[9] These latter units were labeled "supersystems" in the 1988-89 survey and a new questionnaire, the Supersystem Data Sheet, was devised to collect survey data from the head of each of these units. This questionnaire collected only limited inventory-related data such as total cost of the supersystem[10] and the fields in which it was used. Qualitative and descriptive data—such as the working condition of the system or the number and types of research users—were not collected for these specialized integrated supersystems.

The same Supersystem Data Sheets were used in the 1993 survey for continuity of data. In 1993, there were approximately 150 supersystems represented in the survey. (See the Technical Notes for a more complete discussion of supersystems.)

The data in this report have been divided into three chapters to present the information from the two different questionnaires effectively.

Chapter I incorporates data from both instrument questionnaires (that is, the Instrument Data Sheets and the Supersystem Data Sheets) and presents estimates for all research instruments costing at least $20,000 located at the departments and facilities at the 318 in-scope major R&D-performing universities and medical schools. Included in Chapter I are inventory-related concepts such as aggregate cost and numbers of pieces of instruments. Chapter II quantifies the number, cost, and types of the approximately 150 supersystems that are included in the total inventory presentation.

Chapter III, which discusses the instruments' status based on the detailed Instrument Data Sheets, excludes data for the supersystems for which status information was not collected. The text and tables clearly specify whether or not supersystems are included in each analysis.

Presentation of Data in this Report

The national stock of instruments has been divided into five major categories: computers and data handling equipment; chromatographs and spectrometers; microscopy instruments; bioanalytical instruments; and "other" instruments. Detailed tables present the data tabulated by the field of science and engineering of the instrument, by the original cost of the instrument, and by the type of instrument.

Location of the Instruments

Each instrument is generally classified according to the primary field of science and engineering in which it was used in 1993, based on the respondents' replies.[11] The fields tabulated in this report include agriculture, biology, chemistry, physics/astronomy, environmental sciences, computer science (with a subdivision between departments and computer facilities[12]), and engineering. See Appendix C for a list of the subdisciplines included in each major field.

Organization of the Report

This report is designed both for the reader interested in an overall view of academic research instruments and for the researcher wishing to obtain fine detail about certain instruments.

The tables in this report have two basic levels of detail. Those contained in the main body of the text are summaries or overall pictures of the data under discussion; they will be of interest to the general reader. The tables in Appendix A present more detailed set of data which might be used primarily by the researcher interested in a particular issue or research question. The text discussion of these tables will serve merely to call attention to the types of analysis possible using the appendix data.

For each topic, the text includes a "where to find the data" section, directing the reader to locations of various tables and/or interpretive charts under discussion.

The analysis in this report is generally limited to the five major categories of instruments, as it is not feasible to describe all observations for every type of instrument or every field of science. (Where information concerning an instrument type is particularly relevant, however, that detail is discussed in the text.) In general, one or two of the most significant findings from each table is discussed as an example of the kind of information that can be discerned from the tables.

Discussion of the Data

For the general reader's convenience, the text discussion in this report generally refers to rounded data. The accompanying tables, however, contain the unrounded data for researchers wishing detailed information.


[1] See the Technical Notes for further discussion of the changes over time to institutional coverage.

[2] The term "environmental sciences" used here includes the fields of earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and other environmental sciences not elsewhere classified.

[3] The survey excludes mathematics, psychology, the social sciences, and clinical sciences.

[4] A department is an academic unit that grants academic degrees; a facility is an academic unit that does not grant degrees. Either may have faculty assigned to it.

[5] An instrument was classified as "research" if it was used wholly or in part for research. Therefore, the status of dual-use research/instruction instrumentation is included in the analysis in this report.

[6] Copies of this NSF report, Academic Research Instruments: Expenditures 1993, Needs 1994 (NSF 96-324) are available on the Web at Hard copies may also be obtained by calling (301) 947-2722 or by sending an e-mail to

[7] Copies of this report may be obtained via the Web at

[8] Biochemistry, cell biology/genetics, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology, physiology/biophysics, and other biological sciences.

[9] Most, but not all, of these instruments had an original purchase price of $1 million or more.

[10] The entire cost of a research vessel, including construction costs and all fixed and movable equipment, are included in the total cost estimate of research vessels in the supersystem category. The total cost for all other supersystems includes only the cost of the movable research equipment in the unit.

[11] The one exception is that all supersystem computers are classified in the field of computer science.

[12] When results from the survey's Department Questionnaires were tabulated for the Academic Research Instruments: Expenditures 1993, Needs 1994 report, the expenditure patterns for computer science departments were often different from those for computer science facilities; therefore, the data were separated in that report to display the nuances of the detail. The same split between computer science departments and facilities was maintained for this report in those tabulations where the split makes a difference in the status of the instruments.

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