A blue-ribbon advisory panel says the U.S. government needs to spend $6.6 billion over the next 12 years on research facilities at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to maintain global leadership in measurement science.
Leaks, floods, power outages, poor humidity control, and other problems with aging facilities are hobbling the productivity of scientists working at NIST’s laboratories in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, according to a new report from a committee assembled by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). “NIST facilities are not world class and therefore a growing impediment to attracting and retaining staff,” says Ross Corotis, an emeritus engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who chaired the committee. “We saw some labs that were nearly uninhabitable,” notes committee member Kent Rochford, executive director of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and former head of NIST’s intramural program.
Founded in 1901, NIST is an agency within the Department of Commerce charged with promoting U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness through research on measurement standards. Such standards are essential for everything from computer chip manufacturing and internet communication to electricity distribution and ensuring the reliability of COVID-19 tests.
The new report cites several examples of how unmet infrastructure needs have crippled the agency’s ability to deliver needed technologies. A lack of humidity and dust controls in one lab led to repeated delays in providing radiation sensors to the Idaho National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory for identifying nuclear materials. A power interruption at a Boulder lab destroyed a $6 million electron microscope used for research on additive manufacturing. And recent leaks permanently damaged a Kibble balance that was used to help redefine the weight of a kilogram in 2019. The committee found 63% of the institute’s research facilities fail to meet established standards for acceptable building conditions, which reduces researchers’ productivity by 10% to 40%.
The NASEM panel notes that over the past 20 years, annual reports from a congressionally mandated review committee of outside experts have “consistently and unequivocally reported that the root cause of NIST’s progressive facilities decline is grossly inadequate funding,” and have repeatedly called on Congress to pay for upgrades.
The report endorsed an agency blueprint to do just that by spending roughly $550 million annually for the next 12 years to modernize a dozen existing facilities. “We’d love to do it more quickly, but this is the time frame we feel NIST can get it done,” Corotis says.
In the past, each dollar invested in NIST facilities has returned $9 to the U.S. economy, according to independent studies. That ratio is three times higher than what companies typically expect to get back when they upgrade facilities and makes the proposed spending “one of the best investments the government can make in the nation’s research,” says committee member Eric Dillinger, a vice president of strategic consulting at Woolpert, an architecture and engineering firm.
But achieving the panel’s vision will be challenging. Dillinger says the panel has scheduled briefings with White House science and budget officials working on the president’s fiscal year 2024 budget request, which will be presented to Congress next month. But the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has already demanded steep cuts in federal spending.
However, prospects may be brighter over the long term, says science policy analyst Mitch Ambrose of the American Institute of Physics. “Congress at times has [supported] long-term, bipartisan campaigns to upgrade agencies’ physical infrastructure,” says Ambrose, who cites current initiatives at the National Institutes of Health and the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities.