Federal labs in appalling disrepair, endangering research, report warns

September 24, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Aging federal research labs in Maryland and other states are falling apart -- a deterioration impeding and, in some cases, ruining scientific research, according to a study by the General Accounting Office.

In what was described as the first comprehensive look at the state of federal research labs, the investigative arm of Congress found a $3.8 billion backlog in repairs for labs owned by eight agencies. Most of the lab space is 30 years old, and many buildings suffer from leaking roofs and problems with their electrical, heating, air-conditioning and ventilation systems.

The General Accounting Office report was sought by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and released at a congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing that he led. Maryland is home to 80 federal labs that have 56,000 employees and a total budget of $12 billion a year, which includes operating funds and research grants to other organizations,

The report, Mr. Sarbanes said, "reveals a widespread pattern of underinvestment in the maintenance and repair of government research facilities [that] . . . has resulted in poor laboratory conditions that fail to meet scientific standards, that reduce productivity and ruin experiments, and that in some cases violate worker health and safety standards."

While the GAO report suggested federal spending is lagging, some programs for modernization and replacement of some federal labs are under way. They include a $205 million plan at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville and a $540 million 10-year program for National Institute of Standards and Technology facilities in Gaithersburg and Boulder, Colo., according to a Sarbanes aide.

A $400 million plan to consolidate Food and Drug Administration labs -- which were not studied by the GAO -- in Montgomery County and Beltsville was sidetracked, at least temporarily, last week after Vice President Al Gore's plan to "reinvent government" called for a hold on federal acquisition of office space. Democratic Sens. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland protested that move, and Mr. Sarbanes said yesterday that he feels the case for the FDA project is so compelling that it will be allowed to move forward.

While the Joint Economic Committee has no authority to act on the report, yesterday's hearing provided a platform for Mr. Sarbanes, vice-chairman of the committee, and officials of federal laboratories to press for additional federal funds.

"We were trying to get the administration to pay attention to this problem," said Mr. Sarbanes later. "The hearing served the purpose of helping the agencies make the case to the Office of Management and Budget and to their own headquarters" for more money.

Mr. Sarbanes has been pressing for several years to increase federal financing for repairing, modernizing and replacing research labs.

Among other problems, the General Accounting Office report and witnesses yesterday said:

* Scientists at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio constructed a building within a building to protect research equipment from water coming through a roof that had leaked for 10 years.

* The Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the National Institutes of Health's 38-year-old clinical center, a 12-story research hospital on its Bethesda campus, should be replaced, prompting the institutes last year to adopt a plan for a $1.6 billion complex that would be built over a dozen years.

* Ventilation problems at a 21-year-old Agriculture Research Service building in Beltsville closed two labs and forced five researchers to move to another building in December 1991.

* At a lab in Beltsville, samples from a $240,000 human nutrition study that were stored in a freezer were ruined by a power failure.

* In another Beltsville case, a quarter of the volunteers participating in a study dropped out because the elevator in the building where the study was being conducted was out of service for three weeks.

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