Mikulski asks about vibration problems at NIH building

November 17, 2006|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski asked the National Institutes of Health to explain how much of the medical research planned for its new $250 million building in Southeast Baltimore will have to be moved elsewhere because of the vibrations creating problems at the government lab.

Scientists at the federal research agency were supposed to have relocated to the building this fall but are awaiting word whether they can make the move or not.

Mikulski asked Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, to provide information on the cause of the vibrations, planners' knowledge of them and their effect on the aging and drug abuse research intended for the facility. Those questions were among 14 posed in a letter she sent the director.

"I am very concerned," Mikulski wrote to Zerhouni. The senator, a Democrat from Baltimore who takes a strong interest in the NIH because it is based in Bethesda, said she was acting after reading about the problems in The Sun.

The newspaper reported last month that portions of the Biomedical Research Center, on the Johns Hopkins Bayview campus, cannot be used for planned research because the vibrations would skew testing conducted on highly sensitive instruments. The NIH said other projects will move there.

The admission followed more than two years of complaints from NIH scientists who expressed worries to their superiors that the building fell victim to cost-cutting and failed to meet agency guidelines. One scientist in an interview blamed the building's open interior design.

The NIH has been examining the vibrations since at least the start of the year, but the cause, extent and practical effects remain unclear. The NIH has declined specific comment while it investigates, and yesterday a spokesman would say only that it is taking Mikulski's letter seriously and will fully respond.

Mikulski noted in her letter that she had supported construction of the building and that the project was to play a key role in revitalizing the surrounding community. She asked the agency to tell her what research will be able to go into the building and whether the problems will affect the NIH's leasing of the facility.

"The success of biomedical research is of tremendous importance to our nation, and I want to ensure that the dedicated investigators of the NIH have the facilities needed to advance their work," she wrote. Her spokeswoman said she was not available for further comment.

The 10-story Biomedical Research Center was designed by CUH2A, an architecture firm in Atlanta to replace an old laboratory building nearby. Scientists who study aging and drug abuse were supposed to move into the facility.

Bill Kirten, a vice president with the private construction manager SMCI in McLean, Va., which is overseeing the Bayview project, said in a recent interview that the building was built as designed and meets NIH specifications. He attributed any vibration problems to improvements in research equipment whose sensitivity increased during the five years of design and construction.

Likewise, Hal Amick, a vibration consultant hired by the NIH to review the problems at the building, said in a statement that modifications that scientists had made to their microscopes and other equipment had "dramatically" raised the instruments' sensitivity to vibrations. He said he is examining steps to mitigate the effect of the vibrations.

Any modifications to the microscopes haven't caused problems at the current building, said Michael Nymick, Mid-Atlantic regional sales manager for Carl Zeiss Microimaging Inc., which supplied equipment to the existing facility. "If it is working where it is now, it should work where it is intended," Nymick said.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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