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White House Report Paints Dire Picture of U.S. Research Infrastructure

MAY 13, 2024
Many federal research facilities are operating beyond their planned lifespan and are in poor condition, according to a new cross-agency assessment.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics
Examples of poor facility conditions at the National Institute of Standards and Technology included in a previous 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 previous National Academies report on the subject. From left, corroded piping, a leaking ceiling, and a dust-ridden lab space.

(NIST)

An interagency assessment released this month by the White House stresses that many federal research facilities are now well beyond their 40-50-year estimated lifespan, with about half rated to be in “poor or critical condition.”

“U.S. scientists and engineers are now faced with conducting 21st century R&D in many facilities designed in the 1950s that cannot support modern research and current laboratory practices in health and safety,” the report states.

The report flags numerous negative statistics, including that nearly 40% of Department of Energy facilities are rated as substandard or inadequate, more than 60% of the square footage at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is classified as being in poor or critical condition, and about 75% of NASA facilities are beyond their designed lifespan. It attributes the situation to decades of inadequate funding and deprioritization of maintenance. It also warns that remediating aging facilities instead of replacing them still incurs significant costs while missing out on the benefits of properly upgrading those facilities.

The report points out cases where other countries’ research infrastructure has passed that of the U.S. For example, China has overtaken the U.S. in number of supercomputers and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts has pulled ahead of NOAA’s Global Forecast System. However, the issues driving this divide are not limited to advanced equipment, with the report citing widespread problems with basic infrastructure such as insufficient power, unreliable HVAC systems, and failing plumbing systems at U.S. facilities. It also argues that the U.S. is struggling to attract and retain top scientific talent as private companies and other countries offer better compensation and more stable research environments.

Among its recommendations, the report proposes that U.S. research agencies increase their benchmarking against facilities abroad and promptly identify places where a gap may be forming, noting such an effort could also be used as a basis for increasing international cooperation.

This news brief originally appeared in FYI’s newsletter for the week of May 13.

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