Science and Engineering Infrastructure for the 21st Century


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Last Updated: 09/15/2015




Today S&E research is carried out in laboratories supported by government, academe, and industry. Before 1900, however, there were relatively few government-supported research activities. In 1862 Congress passed the Morrill Act, which made it possible for the many new states to establish agricultural and technical (land-grant) colleges for their citizens. Although originally started as technical colleges, many of them grew, with additional State and Federal aid, into large public universities with premier research programs.

Before World War II, universities were regarded as peripheral to the Federal research enterprise. In the years between World War I and World War II, the immigration of scientists from Europe helped to develop American superiority in fields such as physics and engineering. World War II dramatically expanded Federal support for academic and industrial R&D. The war presented a scientific and engineering challenge to the United States - to provide weapons based on advanced concepts and new discoveries that would help defeat the enemy. Large national laboratories, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, were founded in the midst of the war.

The modern research university came of age after World War II when the Federal Government decided that sustained investments in science would improve the lives of citizens and the security of the Nation. The Federal Government increased its support for students in higher education through programs such as the GI bill. It also established NSF in 1950 and NASA in 1957. An infusion of Federal funds made it possible for universities to purchase the increasingly expensive scientific equipment and advanced instrumentation that were central to the expansion of both the R&D and teaching functions of the university.

The advent of the cold war combined with the wartime demonstration of the significant potential for commercial and military applications of scientific research led to vast increases in government funding for R&D in defense-related technologies. The result was a significant expansion of the R&D facilities of private firms and government laboratories. Concomitantly, the Federal Government increased its support for academic research and the infrastructure required to support it. 11

The U.S. government has been a partner with industry and academe in creating the S&E infrastructure for many critical new industries, ranging from agriculture to aircraft to biotechnology to computing and communications. This infrastructure extends across the Earth's oceans, throughout its skies, and from pole to pole. Most of the Nation's academic research infrastructure is now distributed throughout nearly 700 institutions of higher education; and it extends into more than 200 Federal laboratories and hundreds of nonprofit research institutions. Many of these laboratories have traditions of shared use by researchers and students from the Nation's universities and colleges. In this role, participating Federal laboratories have become extensions of the academic research infrastructure.

Assessing the current status of the academic research infrastructure is a difficult undertaking. Periodic surveys of universities and colleges attempt to address various aspects of this infrastructure. But the gaps in the information collected and analyzed leave many important questions unanswered.

Expenditures for Academic Equipment and Instrumentation

A national survey of academic research instrumentation needs, conducted nearly a decade ago, provides the latest available information on annual expenditures for instruments with a total cost of $20,000 or more. As indicated in Table 1, in 1993, the purchase of academic research instrumentation totaled $1,203 million, an increase of 6 percent over the amount reported in the previous survey in 1988. The Federal Government provided $624 million, or 52 percent of the total.

Table 1. 1993 Expenditures for Purchase of Academic Research Instrumentation of Academic Research Instrumentation
$ Millions
% Total
All Sources of Support
1, 203
Federal Sources
Other Agencies
Non-Federal Sources
Academic Institutions
State Government
Foundations, Bonds and Private Donations
Source: Academic Research Instruments: Expenditures 1993, Need 1994, NSF-98-324

NSF provided $213 million in support of research infrastructure during 1993, while NIH provided $117 million and DoD contributed $106 million. Of the non-federal sources of funding, the largest single source came from the academic institutions. A sizable contribution of $105 million came from private, non-profit foundations, gifts, bonds, and other donations.

A more recent survey of academic R&D expenditures reveals that, in 1999, slightly more than $1.3 billion in current funds was spent for academic research equipment. 12 Such expenditures grew at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent (in constant 1996 dollars) between 1983 and 1999. The share of research equipment expenditures funded by the Federal Government declined from 62 percent to 58 percent between 1983 and 1999. In addition, total annual R&D equipment expenditures as a percentage of total R&D expenditures were lower in 1999 (5 percent) than it was in 1983 (6 percent).13 As a point of comparison, during the past decade NSF support of equipment within a research grant has declined from 6.9 percent to 4.4 percent of the total grant budget. 14

Capital Research Construction

Biannual surveys of U.S. research-performing colleges and universities reveal how these institutions fund capital research construction (costing $100,000 or more), in contrast to research instrumentation. The Federal Government's contribution to construction funds at the Nation's research-performing colleges and universities has varied over the past decade. In 1986-87 it accounted for 6 percent of total funds for new construction and repair/renovation of research facilities at public and private universities and colleges. This percentage increased steadily to 14.1 percent in 1992-93 and then declined to 8.8 percent in 1996-97. Very recent data indicate this percentage declined to 6.2 percent in 1998-99. 15

Table 2 indicates that, in 1996-97, research-performing institutions 16 derived their S&E capital projects funds from three major sources: the Federal Government, State and local governments, and other institutional resources (consisting of private donations, institutional funds, tax-exempt bonds, and other sources).

Table 2. Sources of Funds to Construct and Repair/Renovate S&E Research Space: 1996-1997

Source of Funds
Percent of funds for new construction
Percent of funds for repair/renovation
Federal Government 8.7% 9.1%
State/Local Government 31.1% 25.5%
Other Institutional Resources 60.2% 65.4%
TOTAL 100% 100%
TOTAL COST $3.1 billion $1.3 billion

NOTE: Only projects costing $100,000 or more
SOURCE: National Science Foundation/SRS, 1998 Survey of Scientific and Engineering Research Facilities at Colleges and Universities.

The Federal Government directly accounted for 8.7 percent of all new construction funds ($271 million) and 9.1 percent ($121 million) of all repair/renovation funds. Additionally, some Federal funding was provided through indirect cost recovery on grants and/or contracts from the Federal Government. These overhead payments are used to defray the indirect costs of conducting federally funded research and are counted as institutional funding.
Another NSF survey representing 580 research-performing institutions provides some information on the current amount, distribution and condition of academic research space, which includes laboratories, facilities, and major equipment costing at least $1 million. As Table 3 indicates, in 1988 there were 112 million net assignable square feet (NASF) of S&E research space. By 2001 it had increased by 38 percent to 155 million NASF.
Doctorate-granting institutions represented 95 percent of the space, with the top 100 institutions having 71 percent and minority-serving institutions having 5 percent. In addition, 71 percent of institutions surveyed reported inadequate research space, while 51 percent reported a deficit of greater than 25 percent. The greatest deficit was reported by computer sciences, with only 27 percent of the space reported as adequate, and more than double the current space required to make up the perceived deficit. To meet their current research commitments, the research-performing institutions reported that they needed an additional 40 million NASF of S&E research space or 27 percent more than they had.

Table 3. Academic Research Space by S&E Field, 1988-2001

Net assignable square feet (NASF) in millions %
NASF reported as adequate
% additional NASF needed
All fields
 Agricultural sciences
Biological sciences
Computer sciences
Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences
Medical sciences
Physical sciences & mathematics
Psychology & social sciences
Other sciences
Note: Components may not add to totals due to rounding.Source: Survey of Scientific and Engineering Research Facilities, 2001, NSF/SRS.

Maintaining the academic research infrastructure in a modern and effective state over the past decade has been especially challenging because of the increasing cost to construct and maintain research facilities and the concomitant expansion of the research enterprise, with substantially greater numbers of faculty and students engaged in S&E research. 17

The problem is exacerbated by the recurrent Federal funding of research below full economic cost, which has made it difficult for academic institutions to set aside sufficient funds for infrastructure maintenance and replacement. A recent RAND study estimated that the true cost of facilities and administration (F&A) for research projects is about 31 percent of the total Federal grant. Because of limits placed on Federal F&A rates, the share that the Federal Government actually pays is between 24 percent and 28 percent. This share amounts to between $0.7 billion and $1.5 billion in annual costs that are not reimbursed. Moreover, the infrastructure component in negotiated F&A rates has increased since the late 1980s, from under 6 percent in 1988 to almost 9 percent in 1999.18

Unmet Needs

Determining what colleges and universities need for S&E infrastructure is a difficult and complex task. Nevertheless, over the past decade a number of diverse studies and reports have charted a growing gap between the academic research infrastructure that is needed and the infrastructure provided. For example:

  • A 1995 study by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) indicated that the academic research infrastructure in the U.S. is in need of significant renewal, conservatively estimating the facilities and instrumentation needed to make up the deficit at $8.7 billion. 19
  • In 1998, an NSF survey estimated costs for deferred capital projects to construct, repair, or renovate academic research facilities at $11.4 billion, including $ 7.0 billion to construct new facilities and $4.4 billion to repair/renovate existing
    facilities. 20
  • A 2001 report to the Director of NIH estimated that $5.6 billion was required to address inadequate and/or outdated biomedical research infrastructure. The report recommended new funds for NIH facility improvement grants in FY 2002, a Federal loan guarantee program to support facility construction and renovation, and the removal of arbitrary caps of the Federal F&A rate.21
  • In 2001, the Director of NASA reported a $900 million construction backlog and said that $2 billion more was needed to revitalize and modernize research infrastructure. 22
  • A recent study indicated that DoE's Office of Science laboratories and facilities, many of which are operated by universities, are aging and in disrepair - over 60 percent of the space is more than 30 years old. A DoE strategic plan identified more than $2 billion of capital investment projects over the next 10 years (FY 2002 through FY 2011.) 23
  • In FY 2001 an informal survey of NSF directorates and the OPP estimated that future academic S&E infrastructure needs through 2010 would cost an additional $18 billion. 24
  • An NSF blue-ribbon advisory panel recently estimated that an additional $850 million per year in cyberinfrastructure would be needed to sustain the ongoing revolution in S&E. 25

While these surveys and studies provide a rough measure of the magnitude of problem, they say little about the cost of lost S&E opportunities. In a number of critical research fields, the lack of quality infrastructure is limiting S&E progress. For example:

  • The lack of long-term stable support for "wetware" archives is preventing more rapid advances in post-genomic discoveries.
  • The lack of a large-scale network infrastructure that provides the grounds in which the next generation of secure network protocols and architectures could be developed and tested will hamper any significant deployment of these applications.
  • The lack of support for new social science surveys, especially the collection of data in foreign countries, is limiting our scientific understanding of political events, human opinion and behavior.
  • The lack of synchrotron radiation facilities with orders-of-magnitude increase in luminosity is limiting our ability to extend the frontiers in such areas as structural biology, genomics, proteomics, materials, and nanoscience.



The international dimensions of research and education are increasingly essential to U.S. science and engineering. As S&E infrastructure projects grow in size, cost, and complexity, collaboration and partnerships are increasingly required to enable them. These partnerships increase both the quality of the research enterprise and its impact on the economy and society.

The very nature of the S&E enterprise is global, often requiring access to geographically dispersed materials, phenomena, and expertise, as well as collaborative logistical support. It also requires open and timely communication, sharing, and validation of findings, data, and data analysis procedures. Projects in areas such as global change, genomics, astronomy, space exploration, and high-energy physics have a global reach and often require expertise and resources that no single country possesses. Further, the increasing cost of large-scale facilities often requires nations to share the expense.

ALMA conceptual image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory ALMA conceptual image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory

ALMA conceptual image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory

The number of government-funded infrastructure projects that entail international collaboration has increased steadily over the last decade. For example, NSF currently supports a substantial and growing number of projects with international partnering. Among them are the twin GEMINI Telescopes, the Large Hadron Collider, the IceCube neutrino observatory at the South Pole, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, the Ocean Drilling Program, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

In the future, a growing number of large infrastructure projects will be carried out through international collaborations and partnerships. The Internet, the World Wide Web, and other large distributed and networked databases will facilitate this trend by channeling new technologies, researchers, users, and resources from around the globe . 26

All large future infrastructure projects should be considered from the perspective of potential international partnering, or at a minimum of close cooperation regarding competing national-scale projects. An additional challenge is maintaining interest in and political support for long-term international projects. Any absence of follow through on high-profile projects could increase the danger of the U.S. becoming known as an unreliable international partner.

Interagency coordination of large infrastructure projects is also extremely important. For example, successful management of the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics research enterprise requires close coordination among NASA, NSF, DoD, DoE and many private and State-supported facilities. Likewise, implementation of the U.S. polar research program, which NSF leads, requires the coordination of many Federal agencies and nations. University access to the facilities of many of the national laboratories has been facilitated through interagency agreements. There are a number of models for effective interagency coordination, such as committees and subcommittees of the White House-led NSTC.

In the fields of high-energy and nuclear physics, NSF and DoE have developed an effective scheme that facilitates interagency coordination while simultaneously obtaining outside expert advice. The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), supported by NSF and DoE, gives advice to the agencies on research priorities, funding levels, and balance, and provides a forum for DoE-NSF joint strategic planning. This scheme has facilitated joint DoE-NSF infrastructure projects. For example, the HEPAP-backed plan for U.S. participation in the European Large Hadron Collider has been credited with making that arrangement succeed. 27

Partnerships have also played an important role in developing the genomics infrastructure. For example, the Human Genome Project, the Arabidopsis Genome Project, and the International Rice Sequencing Project have made vast amounts of genomic information available to researchers in the life sciences and other fields. Each of these projects was accomplished through a strong network of interagency and international partners.

Partnerships with the private sector also play an important role in facilitating the construction and operation of S&E infrastructure. For example, industrial firms have funded much of the equipment available in the Engineering Research Centers and the National Nanofabrication Users Network (NNUN). Public-private sector partnerships have also helped to enable the Internet, the Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI), and the TeraGrid Project.


While there have been many significant breakthroughs in infrastructure development over the last decade, nothing has come close to matching the impact of IT and microelectronics. The rapid advances in IT have dramatically changed the way S&E information is gathered, stored, analyzed, presented, and communicated. These changes have led to a qualitative, as well as quantitative, change in the way research is performed. Instead of just doing the "old things" cheaper and faster, innovations in information, sensing, and communications are creating new, unanticipated activities, analysis, and knowledge. For example:

  • Simulation of detailed physical phenomena - from subatomic to galactic and all levels in between - is possible; these simulations reveal new understanding of the world, e.g. protein folding and shape, weather, and galaxy formation. Databases and simulations also permit social and behavioral processes research to be conducted in new ways with greater objectivity and finer granularity than ever before.
  • Researchers used to collect and analyze data from their own experiments and laboratories. Now, they can share results in shared archives, such as the protein data bank, and conduct research that utilizes information from vast networked data resources.
  • Automated data analysis procedures of various kinds have been critical to the rapid development of genomics, climate research, astronomy, and other areas and will certainly play an even greater role with accumulation of ever-larger databases.
  • Low-cost sensors, nano-sensors, and high-resolution imaging enable new, detailed data acquisition and analysis across the sciences and engineering - for environmental research, genomics, applications for health, and many other areas.
  • The development of advanced robotics, including autonomous underwater vehicles and robotic aircraft, allows data collection from otherwise inaccessible locations, such as under polar ice. Advanced instrumentation makes it possible to adapt and revise a measuring protocol depending on the data being collected.

Research tools and facilities increasingly include digital computing capabilities. For example, telescopes now produce bits from control panels rather than photographs. Particle accelerators, gene sequencers, seismic sensors, and many other modern S&E tools also produce information bits. As with IT systems generally, these tools depend heavily on hardware and software.

The exponential growth in computing power, communication bandwidth, and data storage capacity will continue for the next decade. Currently, the U.S. Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) has as its target the development of machines with 100 teraflop/second capabilities 28 by 2005. Soon many researchers will be able to work in the "peta" (1015) range. 29 IT drivers - smaller, cheaper, and faster - will enable researchers in the near future to:

  • Establish shared virtual and augmented reality environments independent of geographical distances between participants and the supporting data and computing systems.
  • Integrate massive data sets, digital libraries, models, and analytical tools from many sources.
  • Visualize, simulate, and model complex systems such as living cells and organisms, geological phenomena, and social structures.

With the advent of networking, information, computing, and communications technologies, the time is approaching where the entire scientific community will have access to these frontier instruments and infrastructure. Many applications have been and are being developed that take advantage of network infrastructure, such as research collaboratories, interactive distributed simulations, virtual reality platforms, control of remote instruments, field work and experiments, access to and visualization of large data sets,30 and distance learning (via connection to infrastructure sites). 31

Advances in computational techniques have already radically altered the research landscape in many S&E communities. For example, the biological sciences are undergoing a profound revolution, based largely on the enormous amount of data resulting from the determination of complete genomes. Genomics is now pervading all of biology and is helping to catalyze an integration of biology with other scientific and engineering fields. In order to fully understand the vast amount of genomic information available and apply it to improve the environment, nutritional quality of food, and human and animal health and welfare, new and improved computational and analytical tools and techniques must be developed, and the next generation of scientists and engineers must be trained to use them. Central to genomic sequencing and analysis is access to high-speed computers to store and analyze the enormous amount of data. Automated methods for model search, classification, structure matching, and model estimation and evaluation already have an essential role in genomics and in other complex, data-intensive domains, and should come to play a larger role in the future.

The Nation's IT capability has acted like adrenaline to all of S&E. The next step is to build the most advanced research computing infrastructure while simultaneously broadening its accessibility. NSF is presently working toward enabling such a distributed, leading-edge computational capability. Extraordinary advances in the capacity for visualization, simulation, data analysis and interpretation, and robust handling of enormous sets of data are already underway in the first decade of the 21st century. Computational resources, both hardware and software, must be sufficiently large, sufficiently available, and, especially, sufficiently flexible to accommodate unanticipated scientific and engineering demands and applications over the next few decades.









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