WASHINGTON—Everybody seems eager to see a federally sponsored academic research facilities program. But no one seems to know how to fund it. The lack of consensus on how the United States government would finance the rejuvenation of aging university laboratories has led to conflicting advice from traditional allies, mixed signals from the Bush administration, and a scatter-shot approach by Congress. As a result, the chances appear slim that any such program will get off the ground this year.

One major issue is how many programs there should be. Although earlier legislative proposals sought a coordinated effort financed by a tax on the research budgets of various federal agencies, a bill that Congress passed last year set up a program within the National Science Foundation. Naturally, NSF officials interpreted that decision to mean a program to repair and replace facilities only in the fields of science that it supports. A report...

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