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Decaying Facilities Threaten NIST’s Physics Labs, Panel Finds

FEB 14, 2024
The labs still produce world-class research but need hundreds of millions of dollars to fix decaying infrastructure.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics
NIST Colorado campus

NIST’s campus in Boulder, Colorado.

(NIST)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s physics labs in Boulder, Colorado, need hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and modernize their ailing physical infrastructure, according to a panel of external experts organized by the National Academies. The panel’s report, published in January, is the latest in a series of warnings about how the poor state of NIST’s infrastructure is seriously hampering research.

Chaired by Princeton University physicist Robert Austin, the panel examined the four divisions of NIST’s Physical Measurement Lab (PML) located in Boulder. The panel’s tasking did not cover the five divisions of PML located at the agency’s Maryland campus, which also has huge maintenance backlogs.

The Boulder branch of PML includes NIST’s contribution to a major quantum research institute called JILA at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “JILA is clearly one of the crown jewels of NIST,” the panel states. “It is a special place, absolutely world class, and needs to continue being a special place in the future.”

Despite its high reputation, even JILA faces a daunting backlog of maintenance.

“The continuing excellence of JILA is seriously endangered by a combination of aging and lacking facilities and infrastructure,” the panel warns. “These problems are a critical issue, and there is an urgent need to improve and expand the laboratory facilities. The Quantum Physics Division leadership indicated that an additional $200 million in capital funds for facility upgrades — both new construction and renovation — would barely bring the facilities up to the standards of international peer institutions.”

Site visits to JILA gave the panel the impression that the institute is “at best extremely close to — or, more likely, already past — the tipping point where the facility issues are able to be deferred while the institution continues being successful.”

The panel reaches similar conclusions for the other divisions, stating they produce excellent research but are increasingly undermined by infrastructure problems.

The panel does not cite repair budget estimates for these divisions though it does highlight the findings of a related report released by the National Academies in 2023 that assessed infrastructure needs across all of NIST. That report concluded that NIST would need around $500 million annually for at least 12 years to comprehensively repair and modernize its infrastructure. It also estimated that NIST research staff lose between 10% and 40% of their working time dealing with facility inadequacies and that this burden is harming recruitment and retention.

The PML review panel emphasizes the negative effect that decaying facilities have on hiring, especially for the most competitive candidates. It also offers various specific examples of how the maintenance backlogs are affecting all of PML’s divisions.

For instance, the Applied Physics Division has grappled with water leaks and power outages. The panel recounts how one lab faced outages that “would ruin long-term experiments, requiring an automatic alert system to be installed to notify the staff so they could quickly rush to the laboratory at all times, day or night, and reset the equipment.”

Separate from the infrastructure issues, the panel concluded that “the safety posture of PML does not adequately ensure the safety of PML staff and visitors,” especially with regard to laser-safety protocols in the Quantum Physics Division and the cadence of safety inspections in the Applied Physics Division. It notes PML has taken some initial steps to improve safety but recommends further action, such as increasing the number of inspections and seeking out industry advice on safety standards.

These findings follow a scathing review of NIST’s overall safety practices published last year. That report prompted NIST Director Laurie Locascio to declare the agency needs to “fundamentally change” its safety culture.

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