FYI: Science Policy News

Study Sounds Alarm on Decaying NIST Facilities

FEB 17, 2023
A new National Academies report details the extensive degradation of facilities on the two main campuses of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. To resolve the situation, it endorses a plan to more than triple the agency’s current construction and maintenance budget for more than a decade.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Examples of poor facility conditions at the National Institute of Standards and Technology included in a new National Academies report on the subject. From left, corroded piping, a leaking ceiling, and a dust-ridden lab space.

Examples of poor facility conditions at the National Institute of Standards and Technology included in a new National Academies report on the subject. From left, corroded piping, a leaking ceiling, and a dust-ridden lab space. (Image credit – NIST)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology needs hundreds of millions of dollars annually, into the mid-2030s, to reverse the deterioration of buildings and infrastructure on its campuses in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, according to a study released last week. It warns conditions have been worsening for years and are undermining the agency’s ability to perform its mission.

Established in 1901, NIST is one of the federal government’s oldest science agencies, and with an annual base budget of a little more than $1 billion it is also among the smallest. Most of its portfolio comprises intramural research related to metrology and technical standards, spanning a broad array of subjects such as microelectronics, telecommunications, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, materials, building integrity, and greenhouse gas monitoring.

NIST commissioned the National Academies to perform the study, following direction in Congress’ fiscal year 2021 appropriation . The study committee the Academies convened has in turn attributed conditions at NIST to years of insufficient funding. To address the situation, it urges “resolute action” from the agency and its overseers in the Commerce Department, the White House, and Congress.

Decaying conditions documented in detail

Problems researchers face at NIST range from frequent power and climate-control failures to rampant water leaks, the committee states. It provides extensive detail about specific problems, including power outages destroying one electron microscope worth $6 million and water leaks destroying another worth $2.5 million. Another water leak permanently degraded a $10 million facility housing a Kibble balance, a device that makes ultrasensitive mass measurements.

Some incidents also created acute safety hazards, as when a 4-inch steam line strainer failed catastrophically, causing an explosion that could have been fatal had anyone been nearby. Another leak in a chemically treated steam system caused a loss of between 50,000 and 70,000 gallons of water daily, which NIST expected would lead to it being found in violation of state environmental codes.

The committee finds such problems have delayed work by months or years and variously reduced productivity by between 10% and 40%, depending on the circumstances in different labs. It also describes ways researchers have diverted their time into mitigating the problems they face, calling it a reflection of their “heroic dedication.”

“The committee observed many staff-invented workarounds and fixes to improve temperature control, humidity control, cleanliness, and other laboratory defects,” it relates, adding, “While innovative, this very inefficient and costly use of technical talent is now considered normal among NIST researchers.”

The committee argues that, although NIST has achieved “remarkable success despite drastic underinvestment in facilities,” compounding problems are testing staff members’ ability and willingness to adapt and are hampering the recruitment and retention of personnel. It finds NIST could be performing at a higher level and warns there is a high risk of future degradation in work quality.

“In short, any current appearance of great work being produced in substandard facilities is an illusion that will soon collapse absent corrective action,” it states.

Recapitalization plan requires major funding boost

In tracing the roots of NIST’s problems, the committee reports it looked first at the practices of the agency’s facilities office and found no evidence of “subpar performance.” The committee also endorses a plan the office drafted last year for recapitalizing the Gaithersburg and Boulder campuses.

The plan estimates NIST will require between $300 million and $400 million in construction funding every year for the next 12 years. In addition, it is anticipated between $120 million and $150 million in maintenance funding will be needed for at least that long to arrest further facilities deterioration.

NIST’s fiscal year 2023 appropriation included no funding for constructing facilities on campus. It provided $130 million for maintenance, up from $80 million the year before and $10 million more than requested. Reviewing the history of these accounts over the last two decades, the committee concludes requests and appropriations have both fallen consistently short of what NIST has needed.

The committee states that resolving conditions at NIST will require “immediate, top-down attention” to resolve funding shortfalls. It notes that NIST’s primary advisory panel, the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT), has been advocating for more funding for years and recommends the agency improve its communications with decision-makers to convey the gravity of its problems and their broader implications.

Facilities situation discussed at advisory panel meeting

Eric Dillinger, an executive at the Woolpert engineering consulting firm and a member of the study committee, provided a briefing on the committee’s report during a VCAT meeting on Feb. 8. He advised the agency to make its case by articulating the impacts of the conditions it faces rather than dwelling on the conditions themselves.

“You’re doing world-class research in subpar, poor-to-fit facilities. Now, if that doesn’t impact the research, then it’s a great investment strategy, because you’re getting really crappy facilities and really good results,” he said.

He suggested emphasizing productivity degradation, remarking, “The data suggests that, in addition to everything else you’re doing, you’re losing 10% to 40% of the productivity of your researchers. So, with a staff of researchers in excess of 4,000 people, you’re losing 25% of that capability. That’s the impact.”

At other points in the meeting, NIST officials discussed less quantifiable impacts of conditions on the agency’s work culture. Observing that campus activity has been muted since the beginning of the pandemic, they noted facilities conditions have exacerbated the problem, such as by necessitating the continued closure of common spaces.

NIST Director Laurie Locascio also said that, although the Commerce Department now requires employees at its agencies to be onsite three days per week, exceptions are made “if your facilities basically aren’t appropriate for handling people.” She reported that had recently become the case with the agency’s main administrative building on its Gaithersburg campus.

“I’m not in my office, I haven’t been since November. I’m camping out in different places, because the entire building is basically shut down,” she said, pointing out it is supposed to accommodate in the range of 500 people.

NIST's main administrative building on its campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland

NIST Director Laurie Locascio reported this month that the agency’s main administrative building on its campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has been “basically shut down” due to poor facility conditions. (Image credit – NIST)

Earmarks complicating NIST budget calculus

At the VCAT meeting, NIST leaders also discussed how congressional earmarks are taking a toll on the agency’s ability to address its facilities problems.

Congress revived the practice of earmarking appropriations for specific projects in fiscal year 2022 and since then it has increased NIST’s topline budget by 60%, with earmarks absorbing most of the additional money. Thus, although Congress provided $462 million for NIST’s Construction of Research Facilities account for fiscal year 2023, about 70% of the total is for projects external to the agency , primarily at universities.

NIST officials told VCAT that, even though the earmarked money is transferred to external entities, the agency still must administer it via grants and audit the funded projects without receiving overhead funding to perform the work. As new earmarks are added , they said administrative capacity is becoming strained. One official also suggested that, while earmarks generally add to what NIST would otherwise receive, they can be regarded as occupying budgetary room that could be allocated to increases for agency projects.

Putting a positive spin on the situation, Locascio suggested earmarks might help broaden congressional interest in NIST. “There are a lot of people out there now aware of NIST because they found our budget. … There may be an opportunity somehow — and we haven’t quite figured this out — to at least make sure that we get our name out there while we’re administering these grants,” she said.

However, it is also possible NIST is gaining a reputation as a grant-administering agency.

Senate appropriators proposed last year that NIST reestablish a competitive grant program the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created in 2009 to fund construction projects at extramural research institutions, but that idea was ultimately not enacted.

This year, NIST is building up capacity to administer the $50 billion the Commerce Department is receiving through the CHIPS and Science Act to fund industry-led efforts to bolster U.S. semiconductor R&D and manufacturing. A marquee initiative in the Biden administration’s industrial policy, these efforts are virtually certain to become the most high-profile and intensely scrutinized activity in the agency’s portfolio.

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