A growing backlog of renovation projects at U.S. universities could be hampering American innovation and international competiveness, according to witnesses at a recent House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education hearing.

On 23 February 2010, Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) addressed the need for federal support for renovation and maintenance of academic research facilities. “Successful R&D [research and development] takes more than intellectual freedom and grant funding. You also need state-of-the-art lab space, networks, instruments, and computing facilities. Public institutions especially are suffering as the recession has eroded state support. I am worried that unless we actively modernize our R&D facilities, we could not only be spending federal research dollars inefficiently, but we could lose our position as scientific leaders,” said Lipinski.

Witnesses representing research universities from across the nation reported on declining funds to maintain, repair, and renovate science facilities on their campuses. At three universities, Penn State, University of Arizona, and Medical University of South Carolina, the shortfall is $1.3 billion. Nationally, the backlog is estimated to be $3.5 billion, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2005 “Survey of Science and Engineering Research Facilities.” State budget cuts, a lack of philanthropic contributions, and flat or declining federal investments have all contributed to the backlog.

As Dr. Leslie Tolbert, Vice President for Research, Graduate Studies and Economic Development at the University of Arizona, testified, older buildings and outdated equipment stifles research. “Our older buildings do not meet current safety codes, limiting their utility for research involving hazardous biological or chemical agents. With their small, compartmentalized spaces, they certainly are not conducive to current modes of collaborative research. We struggle to find the resources to update those buildings, as well as to build new research buildings that can provide the new lab space that we need.”

Other witnesses also reflected this sentiment, stating that their institutions attract more competitive and better qualified faculty and students in the scientific disciplines that are housed in new research facilities on their campus. Some universities are also losing experienced foreign-born faculty, who prefer to return to their native country after teaching in the United States for decades because of booming R&D investments abroad.

The hearing was held in preparation for the House Science and Technology Committee’s reauthorization of the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act.


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