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Run-down labs hamper federal research.

Earlier this year, backup electrical generators failed during a power outage at the Beltsville (Md.) Agricultural Research Center (BARC). The weekend loss of power to freezers destroyed samples of blood, urine, and stool from a major nutrition study.

While BARC scientists spent $240,000 to collect these specimens, "the cost of repeating this human trial may be prohibitive;' according to BARC Director K. Darwin Murrell.

Moreover, he testified before the congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) last week, such incidents are not that unusual at BARC. Damaged roofs, a steam-line problem, and a burst water pipe forced a closing for two months last fall of the BARC lab that studies cellular and ecological responses of crops to climate stress. Indeed, "complete building shutdowns are increasingly frequent," Murrell said, owing to the deterioration and obsolescence of BARC facilities -- 77 percent of which are at least 50 years old.

Nor is BARC's situation unique. According to a new General Accounting Office (GAO) study, decades of widespread underinvestment in the nations federal research infrastructure have allowed major facilities across the United States to deteriorate badly.

GAO studied 220 labs owned by eight federal agencies, including NASA, the National institutes of Health (NIH), and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy. It found that most of the space devoted to research was at least 30 years old and that needed repairs could cost more than $3.8 billion.

Some labs - a former Army barracks or converted cow barn - never were more than makeshift. Others evolved into makeshift operations, such as a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base lab in Ohio, where scientists finally solved the problem of a 10-year roof leak by building a second, indoor building - complete with roof and walls -- around their instruments.

In some instances, the design of the deteriorating structure limits needed /improvements. For instance, air-exhaust capabilities at NIH's 38-year-old clinical center in Bethesda, Md., "cannot satisfy even current user demands," notes Stephen A. Ficca, associate director of NIH. 50 the center cannot add new fume hoods- which limits research there. Moreover, Ficca told the JEC, deficiencies in the current system "result in potential exposure of NIH personnel to hazardous fumes."

"Infrastructure deterioration is not a problem limited to just one or two of these government-owned facilities, but appears to be a system-wide problem;' observes JEC vice chairman Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), whose state contains the largest concentration of federal labs. "We hope to use this new study as ammunition to help [labs] defend budget increases for research infrastructure investments - both within their agencies and before the congressional committees that oversee federal spending," he told SCIENCE NEWS.

But "let's look at each lab and see whether it's even needed before we fix its roof," argues Joseph P. Martino, a senior scientist at the University of Dayton (Ohio) Research Institute.

A spate of studies indicates that many federal labs do "very poor research," says Martino, who has been analyzing research management. Even among quality programs, he notes, many-like NASA's aeronautical studies - exist merely to support civilian industries. Why, he asks, shouldn't industry consider picking up the costs of these labs?
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Title Annotation:government research facilities
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 2, 1993
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