Infrastructure for Academic R&D

Physical infrastructure is an essential resource for the conduct of R&D. Traditionally, the capital infrastructure for R&D consisted primarily of research space (e.g., laboratories, computer rooms) and instrumentation. Accordingly, the square footage of a designated research space and counts of instruments have been the principal indicators of the status of research infrastructure.

Advances in information technology have brought significant changes to the methods of scientific research and the infrastructure necessary to conduct R&D. The technologies, human interfaces, and associated processing capabilities resulting from these innovations are often called cyberinfrastructure. The value of research facilities, research equipment, and cyberinfrastructure to the academic R&D infrastructure is highlighted in the sections that follow.

Research Facilities

Research Space

Research-performing universities and colleges in the United States had 214.7 million net assignable square feet (NASF) of research space available at the end of 2015 (Appendix Table 5-8). This was 1.4% greater than the NASF at the end of 2013, which was the lowest 2-year percentage increase since data collection began in 1988. Since 2005, the average biennial growth rate (3%) in research space has been less than half of the average biennial growth rate from 1996 to 2005 (7.1%) (Figure 5-6).

Change in S&E research space in academic institutions, by 2-year period: FYs 1988–2015

NASF = net assignable square feet.


The biennial survey cycle ran on even years from 1988 to 1998 and on odd years from 1999 to 2013.


National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

The biological and biomedical sciences continued to account for the largest share (26%) of academic research space in 2015. In this field, there was a 2.3% decline in research space between 2013 and 2015, compared with an 8.5% average growth biennially from 2007 to 2013 (Figure 5-7; Appendix Table 5-8). The health sciences (18%), engineering (16%), agricultural sciences (13%), and physical sciences (11%) comprised the next largest shares of S&E research space. Research space in the smaller S&E fields increased by almost 4% from 2013 to 2015, with no single field showing a net loss of space. Engineering is the only major field where total research space increased consistently from 2007 to 2015. This is similar to the trend in R&D expenditures over the same period, when the only major fields with continuous growth in expenditures were engineering and geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences (see Appendix Table 5-5).

Research space at academic institutions, by S&E field: FYs 2007 and 2015


Natural resources and conservation is included with agricultural sciences for FY 2015. These fields were combined prior to FY 2015.


National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities. See Appendix Table 5-8.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

In 2015, 80% of research space was reported by academic institutions as being in superior or satisfactory condition (Table 5-9). Sixteen percent of space required major renovations within the next 2 years, while the remaining 4% required replacement. These percentages have changed very little over the past decade.

Between 76% and 84% of research space was rated as either superior or satisfactory across all but two major fields in 2015. Of research space in the computer and information sciences, 91% (4.5 million square feet) was rated as superior or satisfactory, while 72% of space in the natural resources and conservation field (3.5 million square feet) was similarly rated.

Condition of S&E research space in academic institutions, by field: FY 2015

New Construction

New research space is added each year by starting new construction projects and repurposing existing space. Similarly, some space is withdrawn from use through decommissioning and repurposing. The net result has been an increase in research space for more than two decades. As part of this process, academic institutions broke ground on 5.2 million square feet of new S&E research space construction projects in 2014–15, which was 21% less than the construction space started in 2012–13 (6.6 million square feet) (Table 5-10). This continued a trend dating to 2002–03, where smaller amounts of new research space construction have been reported for five of the last six survey cycles. Construction projects for the biological and biomedical sciences (1.5 million square feet), engineering (1.0 million square feet), and the health sciences (1.0 million square feet) accounted for two-thirds of new research space construction started in 2014 or 2015.

New construction of S&E research space in academic institutions, by field and time of construction: FYs 2006–17

Academic institutions initiated new construction in all fields during 2014 and 2015, although the growth rate of new construction projects slowed over the past decade. These institutions anticipated that an additional 9.6 million square feet of new research space construction would be started in 2016 or 2017. This is the highest projected total since 10.3 million square feet were planned for 2010 and 2011. However, not all planned projects are started during the projected time frame because of various factors, such as changing budgets and priorities. In 2013, academic institutions reported 8.8 million square feet of planned new research space construction for 2014 or 2015. However, the actual amount reported in 2015 for that period was 5.2 million square feet—59% of what was planned. Data from the previous two cycles of the Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities indicate that 80% of planned new research space was started within the anticipated time frames.

Twenty-two percent of the nation’s 570 research-performing colleges and universities (126 institutions) initiated new construction of S&E research space in 2014–15, with estimated completion costs of $5.7 billion (Appendix Table 5-9). Although the new construction costs were an estimated 5.4% greater than projects started in 2012–13, they were lower than the amounts reported in every other 2-year period since 1998–99.

Academic institutions provide the majority of funds for construction of new research space, typically accounting for more than 60% of the cost (Appendix Table 5-9). For the construction of new research space initiated in 2014–15, 64% of the funding came from institutions’ internal sources, 20% from state and local governments, and the remaining 16% from the federal government. Although the $905 million of federal support is the most since data collection began for 1986–87, more than 60% of that funding was slated for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University. The facility is projected to be complete in 2022.

Repair and Renovation

Academic institutions expended $4.1 billion on major repairs and renovations of S&E research space in 2014–15 (Appendix Table 5-10). They anticipated another $3.9 billion in costs for planned repair and renovation of research space with start dates in 2016–17. More than $902 million were planned to improve space in biological and biomedical sciences as well as more than $884 million for improvements to health and clinical sciences space. In addition to these slated improvements, academic institutions reported $4.9 billion in repair and renovation projects from their institutional plans that were not yet funded or scheduled to start in 2016–17. Almost $4 billion in further needed improvements were identified that were not actually included in their institutional plans.

The total backlog of deferred improvements was greater than all projects started or planned for 2014–17. The costs for deferred repairs and renovations have consistently been greater than those started or planned for similar cycles in the past. This is due in part to the longer time frames of institutional plans, which often run beyond 5 years, and to the fact that the total backlog also accounts for projects not included in institutional plans.

In contrast to new construction, spending on repairs and renovations increased biennially since the 1990s, except for a dip in 2008–09. Federal funding for repairs and renovations fluctuated greatly over this period. State government funding grew continually for two decades to a peak of $855 million in 2010–11 before declining by more than 40% to $503 million in 2014–15. Academic institutions have been the main contributors to research space repair and renovation funding, typically providing 70% or more of the funds. With the latest dip in federal and state government support for these projects, institutional funds accounted for 86% of research space repair and renovation funding for projects started in 2014–15 (Appendix Table 5-11).

Research Equipment

In 2016, universities spent about $2.1 billion for movable equipment necessary for the conduct of academic S&E research projects (Appendix Table 5-12). This spending accounted for 3.1% of the $67.7 billion total academic S&E R&D expenditures. Annual equipment spending increased 2.2%, on average, from 2014 to 2016 when adjusted for inflation, after fluctuating by 10%–11% during the previous 3 years. The 2016 total is slightly below average, in constant dollars, for the 2002–16 period.

Research equipment expenditures continue to be concentrated in just three fields, which accounted for 87% of the 2016 total: life sciences (40%), engineering (29%), and physical sciences (18%). The shares for these three fields have consistently accounted for about 80% or more of total equipment expenditures, although the combined shares have been at or near the highest on record for the past several years (Appendix Table 5-12).

When adjusted for inflation, the 2016 level of equipment spending in engineering was 7% greater than the 2015 total. The 2013 and 2014 totals were the highest levels of engineering equipment expenditures reached in decades, while the 2016 level was above average for the 2006–16 period (Figure 5-8). Total science equipment spending was 19% lower than the high point reached in 2004 in constant dollars (Appendix Table 5-12).

Current fund expenditures for S&E research equipment at academic institutions, by selected S&E field: FYs 2006–16


Gross domestic product deflators come from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and are available at, accessed 10 February 2016.


National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Higher Education Research and Development Survey (HERD). See Appendix Table 5-12.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

Unlike funding for new construction of research space, which relies heavily on institutional funds, most academic research equipment funding typically comes from the federal government. These federal funds are received as part of research grants or as separate equipment grants. Prior to 2014, federal support for research equipment had not fallen below 50% since data were initially collected in 1981. The federal share of research equipment funding reached 63% as recently as 2011. In 2014, the federal government supported 45% of total academic S&E research equipment funding. This share ticked slightly higher in 2015, to 47%, but fell again to 45% in 2016 (Appendix Table 5-13).

The federal share of funding varies significantly by S&E field and subfield. Atmospheric sciences and meteorology (85%), physics (74%), and industrial and manufacturing engineering (69%) were the only fields receiving around 70% or more federal funding for R&D equipment, while two fields (political science and government, 13%; economics, 8%) received less than 20% federal support.


Advances in computing technology and information technology have changed the nature of scientific research and the infrastructure for conducting it over the past three decades. Cyberinfrastructure includes resources such as high-capacity networks, which are used to transfer information, and data storage systems, which are used for short-term access or long-term curation. It may also involve high-performance computing (HPC) systems used to analyze data, create visualization environments, or facilitate remote use of scientific instrumentation (NSF 2012). Cyberinfrastructure helps researchers process, transfer, manage, analyze, and store large quantities of data.

Rapid changes in the field and the often decentralized nature of many research project requirements have made quantifying these resources very difficult. Many researchers access computing, storage, software, and networking resources on their own rather than through the resources their universities provide. Increasingly, academic institutions are centralizing their cyberinfrastructure resources to increase efficiency.

The Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) is part of a continuing federal effort to provide the academic research community with a range of HPC, networking, visualization, data storage, software, and support services. NSF announced the 5-year, $121 million project in 2011 as a partnership of 17 institutions supporting 16 supercomputers across the country, with the anticipation of expanding resources throughout the lifetime of the project (NSF 2011). XSEDE enabled more than 6,000 scientists to conduct research, at no added cost, from its initiation in 2011 through 2016.

Federal investment in cyberinfrastructure for academic, federal, and industry research gained visibility and momentum with the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), created by executive order of the president in 2015 (White House, Office of the Press Secretary 2015). The strategic plan, outlined in 2016, explained the initiative as

a whole-of-Nation effort to sustain and enhance U.S. leadership in high-performance computing. The NSCI seeks to accomplish five strategic objectives in a government collaboration with industry and academia: (1) accelerate the successful deployment and application of capable exascale computing; (2) ensure that new technologies support coherence in data analytics as well as simulation and modeling; (3) explore and accelerate new paths for future computing architectures and technologies, including digital computing and alternative computing paradigms; (4) holistically expand capabilities and capacity of a robust and enduring HPC ecosystem; and (5) establish an enduring public-private collaboration to ensure shared benefit across government, academia, and industry. (NSCI Executive Council 2016:3)

The strategic plan highlighted the critical roles of academia, government, and industry in the process. The goal is to ensure access to HPC resources for academic and industry researchers so that the United States can maintain its science and technology leadership role.