Infrastructure for Academic R&D

Physical infrastructure is an essential resource for the performance of R&D at academic institutions. The principal indicators of this infrastructure are the square footage of designated research space and research instrumentation expenditures. Two fields of research primarily drive the continual increases in academic S&E research space: biological and biomedical sciences and engineering. These two fields accounted for more than 60% of total research space growth from 2007 to 2017. Research equipment expenditures have fluctuated over the past 15 years in constant dollars but stand at levels similar to those a decade ago. Federal funding of research equipment declined to less than 50% in 2014 for the first time in decades and has remained below that threshold since.

Research Facilities

Research-performing universities and colleges in the United States had 220.0 NASF of research space available at the end of 2017, up 5.5 million NASF (2.6%) from 2015 (Figure 5b-18). The total increase in research space between 2015 and 2017 was more than twice the square footage of space added between 2013 and 2015 (2.7 million NASF).

S&E research space in academic institutions: FYs 1988–2017

NASF = net assignable square feet.


The biennial survey cycle ran on even years from FYs 1988 to 1998 and on odd years from FYs 1999 to 2017.


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

Science and Engineering Indicators

Despite some fluctuations, research space in most S&E fields increased from 2007 to 2017. One exception to this trend was computer and information sciences, which declined 13% (from 4.8 million to 4.2 million NASF) (Table 5b-1). Engineering is the only major field where total research space steadily increased during this 10-year interval. This is similar to the trend in R&D expenditures over the same period: engineering was the only major field with continuous growth in expenditures, while other fields increased overall, despite some periodic fluctuations (NCSES HERD 2016: Table 9; NCSES HERD 2017: Table 9).

S&E research space in academic institutions, by field and research animal space: FYs 2007–17

(Millions of net assignable square feet)

na = not applicable; see Note(s).

a Research animal space is listed separately and is included in individual field totals.


S&E fields and their disciplines were revised in FY 2015. Specifically, "Agricultural sciences and natural resources sciences" has been split into "Agricultural sciences" and "Natural resources and conservation." "Physical sciences" and its subfields "Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences" and "Astronomy, chemistry, and physics" are now reported under "Geosciences, atmospheric sciences, and ocean sciences" and "Physical sciences," respectively. Data were not collected separately for "Natural resources and conservation" before the FY 2015 survey and are included in the "Agricultural sciences" field for earlier cycles.


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

Science and Engineering Indicators

Overall, biological and biomedical sciences accounted for 40% of total S&E research space growth over the past 10 years. The 57.5 million NASF of biological and biomedical sciences research space also accounted for the largest share of research space, with 26% of the total. Health sciences (18%), engineering (16%), agricultural sciences (13%), and physical sciences (11%) comprised the next-largest shares of S&E research space.

New research space is added each year through construction projects and the repurposing of existing space. Academic institutions broke ground on 7.0 million NASF of new S&E research space construction projects in 2016–17, which was the largest amount of new research space construction started since 2010–11 (NCSES Facilities 2017: Table 8). Institutions reported $6.2 billion in completion costs for these new construction projects, which were largely funded by the institutions’ internal funds (71%) (NCSES Facilities 2017: Table 24). Academic institutions also expended $5.1 billion on major repairs and renovation of S&E research space in 2016–17 (NCSES Facilities 2017: Table 25).

Research Equipment

In 2018, universities spent about $2.1 billion on capitalized equipment necessary for the conduct of academic research projects (Table S5b-1). This spending accounted for close to 3% of the $79.3 billion in total academic R&D expenditures and represented a 4% decline from 2017 when adjusted for inflation. Annual equipment spending has generally ranged between $1.9 billion and $2.3 billion over the last 15 years when adjusted for inflation. The 2018 inflation-adjusted total is the lowest during this period.

Research equipment expenditures continue to be concentrated in three fields: life sciences (41%), engineering (28%), and physical sciences (18%). While shares for these three fields have consistently accounted for about 80% or more of total equipment expenditures, the combined shares have been at or near the highest on record for the past several years. Also noteworthy is that more than one-third of all research equipment expenditures stem from two life sciences subfields: biological and biomedical sciences (18%) and health sciences (17%).

When adjusted for inflation, the 2018 level of equipment spending in engineering was well below the 2013 and 2014 totals, which were the highest levels reached in decades. It was also lower than the equipment expenditures in the other years after 2010. However, engineering equipment expenditures were substantially greater than the 2004–09 period preceding these higher totals. In comparison, the 2018 level of science equipment spending was the second lowest of the past 15 years. Total science equipment spending in 2018 was also 23% lower than the high point reached in 2004.

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. Before 2014, the share of research equipment expenditures funded by federal sources remained above 50% since data were initially collected in 1981, including a high of 63% as recently as 2010. Since 2014, the federal government has funded 44% to 47% of research equipment expenditures (Table S5b-2).

The federal share of research equipment funding varies significantly by R&D field and subfield. Atmospheric sciences and meteorology (77%) and physics (73%) were the only fields receiving 70% or more of their R&D equipment funding from federal sources. Economics (5%), social sciences (16%), and natural resources and conservation (19%) were the only S&E subfields receiving less than 20% federal support for R&D equipment. Several non-S&E fields also received less than 20% federal support for R&D equipment. This reflects the less equipment-dependent nature of research in these fields.