Infrastructure for Academic R&D

The conduct of academic R&D requires a variety of physical and institutional infrastructures, including laboratories, offices, and other spaces; research equipment; information, communications, and library resources; and diverse organizational elements. In addition to these infrastructures, which are typically owned and controlled by the researchers’ academic institutions, academic R&D also makes increasingly heavy use of external infrastructures not under the institution’s direct ownership and control, such as federal user facilities, shared research databases, computational and communications cyberinfrastructures, astronomical and terrestrial observatories, oceanographic networks and ships, and so on. For more than three decades, NCSES has surveyed academic research institutions regarding their use of and investments in internal research infrastructures: facilities and capitalized research equipment. These two key elements of physical infrastructure are the focus of the remainder of this section.

Research Facilities

In 2021, U.S. universities and colleges reported devoting 236.1 million net assignable square feet (NASF) of space to S&E research, an increase of 9.2 million NASF over 2019 (Figure URD-16). The space devoted to research varies widely across the fields of S&E, reflecting the different levels of funding and the physical equipment and resources required for research in diverse fields. The life sciences fields of health sciences and biological and biomedical sciences together used 100.3 million NASF in 2021, or more than 40% of all academic research space (NCSES Facilities 2021: Table 1).

Keyboard instructions

S&E research space at academic institutions: FYs 1999–2021

(Millions of net assignable square feet)
Fiscal year S&E research space
1999 148.0
2001 155.0
2003 172.7
2005 185.1
2007 187.9
2009 196.1
2011 202.2
2013 211.8
2015 214.5
2017 221.2
2019 226.9
2021 236.1

The biennial survey cycle for the Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities ran on odd years for FYs 1999–2021.


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

Science and Engineering Indicators

In 2021, academic research institutions reported plans to invest over $12.8 billion in current dollars to build new academic research space during 2022 and 2023, which would add over 10.6 million NASF in research space to the nation’s inventory (NCSES Facilities 2021: Table 8 and Table 12). These same institutions spent some $4.5 billion on building new facilities that began construction in 2020 or 2021. Of that amount, federal sources provided $40.9 million, or 1% of the total; state and local governments provided $990.7 million, or 22% of the total; and institutions’ own funds and other institutional funding sources provided 77% of the total (NCSES Facilities 2021: Table 24).

Research space must be maintained and revitalized to continue to deliver necessary services to researchers. In 2020 and 2021, research universities invested about $4.9 billion in current dollars on new projects to repair or renovate research space (NCSES Facilities 2021: Table 18). Institutions reported that they plan to invest an additional $6.1 billion in such projects during FYs 2022 and 2023. Additional information on this topic is available from the NCSES analyses of the Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities.

Research Equipment

In 2021, universities spent about $2.7 billion in current dollars on capitalized equipment used to conduct academic research (NCSES HERD 2021: Table 18). This spending reflected an increase of 2.8% from 2020 in current dollars; when adjusted for inflation, this represented a slight decrease year over year. Annual equipment spending has ranged between $1.9 billion and $2.3 billion in constant dollars over the last 10 years. As in prior years, research equipment expenditures were concentrated in three fields: life sciences (39%), engineering (30%), and physical sciences (17%) (NCSES HERD 2021: Table 18).

The federal government typically plays a major role in funding academic research equipment. The share of research equipment expenditures funded by federal sources remained above 50% from 1981, when these data were first collected, through 2013. Since 2014, the federal share of funding has ranged from 44% to 48% (NCSES HERD 2014: Table 14; NCSES HERD 2015: Table 13; NCSES HERD 2016: Table 17; NCSES HERD 2017: Table 17; NCSES HERD 2018: Table 17; NCSES HERD 2019: Table 17; NCSES HERD 2020: Table 17; NCSES HERD 2021: Table 18). The federal share of research equipment funding differed significantly across fields and subfields. In 2021, the federal share was highest (above 70%) in atmospheric sciences and meteorology, ocean sciences and marine sciences, electrical and electronics engineering, and metallurgical and materials engineering. Among S&E fields, the federal share of funding for equipment in 2021 was lowest in the social sciences (31%), particularly political science (5%) and anthropology (4%) (NCSES HERD 2021: Table 18).