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NSF Queries Need for New Facilities

WASHINGTON—In the midst of a growing chorus lamenting the physical condition of the nation's research facilities, the National Science Foundation has been singing a different—and somewhat dissonant—tune. The battle, not surprisingly, concerns money: in particular, whether the federal government should undertake a multibillion dollar program to upgrade laboratories in hundreds of colleges and universities. A host of educational organizations think it should, and are backing a bi

By | June 15, 1987

WASHINGTON—In the midst of a growing chorus lamenting the physical condition of the nation's research facilities, the National Science Foundation has been singing a different—and somewhat dissonant—tune.

The battle, not surprisingly, concerns money: in particular, whether the federal government should undertake a multibillion dollar program to upgrade laboratories in hundreds of colleges and universities. A host of educational organizations think it should, and are backing a bill proposed by the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Robert Roe (D-N.J.), to provide $2.5 billion over 10 years for such purposes.

But NSF Director Erich Bloch has been less than enthusiastic about such a plan. He is said to fear that, once begun, such a program will eventually grow so large that it will threaten federal dollars now being spent directly on research and other R&D programs. Seen as a public works project, it would also attract the close and continuing attention of a Congress already being criticized for funding research facilities without regard to their scientific merit.

The debate is being waged in large part by reports, the latest of which is an NSF document that sharply questions the need for a federal facilities program. Each side has marshaled numbers trying to prove either that a) there is an immediate need for substantial federal support, or b) the situation is already improving because of state and private contributions and, in any case, the federal government plays only a minor role in funding new facilities.

Defining the Problem

In February 1986 a presidential commission reporting on the health of U.S. colleges and universities found the problem to be serious, and getting worse. It estimated that the government needs to spend $10 billion—a figure that has been widely circulated among supporters—over the next decade.

A few months later, in response to legislation passed by Congress in 1985, NSF surveyed university research administrators of graduate programs about the state of their facilities (the physical space in which to conduct research). The executive summary of the report, released last fall, said facilities in the top 50 universities "were reported to be in good or excellent condition" and that spending for facilities "is a marginal expense relative to support for personnel and equipment."

In March, nine higher education associations declared that NSF's conclusions were "unwarranted and potentially misleading." The organizations, including the American Association of Universities (AAU), the Association of American Medical Colleges and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, warned in their own report that Congress and other policy-makers should "not be misled" by the NSF report.

Last month NSF unveiled a second study, examining infrastructure. It is based on a series of executive briefings presented more than a year ago by its in-house think tank, the Division of Policy Research and Analysis that are now being made available to the larger scientific community.

Needs or Wants?

The analysis, entitled "Infrastructure: The Capital Requirements for Academic Research," picks apart some of the assumptions made in past studies, and suggests that the problem might stem in part from scientific self-interest. "Is there a real need for more instrumentation," it asks at one point, "or is this merely a manifestation of a boundless desire for more and better instruments?"

Its analysis of the historical data finds that "the federal government has never had a major role in facilities funding." It argues against the common belief that the 1960s were a "golden age" for federal support of scientific facilities. "More funds were spent on housing, athletic, cultural and social facilities than on core education and research facilities," it says of that era. "From the perspective of science and engineering, the Golden Age doesn't appear to have been especially affluent."

The analysis even touches on the difficulties in measuring improvements to infrastructure. It concludes that reducing the average age of equipment "is not a useful objective" for the federal government because of the tendency for institutions to retain obsolete equipment which, although not used, is counted in surveys. With respect to facilities, it notes that "renovation activities disrupt research for longer periods of time" than insufficient space or outmoded facilities.

Even new is not always better. "it is impossible to determine from the survey data whether renovations always make permanent improvements that are worth the cost," the analysis notes.

Pointing out the various sources of support for academic facilities, it asserts that "the private university infrastructure is currently in relatively 'good condition,'" and that "research and development has become an economic development issue at the state level, and consequently a target of state funding." Given 'these trends, plus the $1.5 billion that universities say they will be spending this year to build and maintain facilities, the report concludes that "an adequate long-term facilities funding rate may have been achieved, and the facilities shortage problem may be declining."

AAU's Robert Rosenzweig said the report "is an arid exercise in economic theory that is disconnected from reality." Despite the heated rhetoric, however, the two sides have remained on good terms during the debate, which is expected to continue throughout the present Congress and into the next administration. The educational institutions have already held one meeting with NSF officials as the foundation begins to fine-tune the second edition of the facilities survey that will be sent out next year.

The issue may never become more than an academic exercise, however. Despite widespread support from the higher education and scientific community, Roe's bill has attracted little interest among members of the appropriations committees that control the science dollars or from Senate colleagues. And it's not even on the agenda of administration officials.

In the best Washington tradition, hearings will be held, opinions expressed, and maybe even a vote taken on the House floor. But the real action will occur behind the scenes, each side armed with its own numbers.

Mervis is on the staff of The Scientist.

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