University infrastructure: declines and dollars ?>

University infrastructure: declines and dollars

During the House Science and Technology Committee’s hearing Feb. 23, senior officials from major research institutions highlighted declines in research infrastructure at universities.  While officials detailed the effects on research, some committee members were skeptical about greater federal support for infrastructure.

“Our nation’s research universities are falling behind in their ability to provide the physical infrastructure” that is vital to research, said Leslie Tolbert, vice president for research at University of Arizona.

In his opening statement, Chairman Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., said universities were deferring $3.5 billion in needed renovations. Tolbert and other officials concurred, detailing hundreds of millions in needed facility updates at each of their institutions.

The officials said their university competitiveness was related to the quality of their facilities.  Research productivity suffers and universities have difficulty recruiting faculty and students when facilities are in decline, officials said

But several members of Congress had concerns about greater federal investment.

“It’s important to understand the history of this issue,” said U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich.  Traditionally, facilities have been provided by the university and their outside donors, Ehlers said.

Noting that the National Science Foundation’s expertise was in supporting peer-reviewed, basic research, Ehlers said that it was not clear that agencies like the NSF had the expertise to judge proposals for specialized facilities.

While the NSF’s role in funding university infrastructure is traditionally limited, the agency provides some support through its Major Research Instrumentation program.  The 2010 NSF budget provides $90 million for this program and NSF expects to spend nearly $300 million in stimulus money on MRI.

Still, concern for an expanding federal role in providing for research infrastructure was expressed on both sides of the aisle.

While Lipinski’s opening remarks had attributed declines in infrastructure investment to the current economic situation, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said state governments – a traditional source for university funding – had been divesting in infrastructure long before they began struggling under the current recession.

In response, officials detailed several beneficial collaborations between industry, state governments and their universities.  But they also emphasized the importance of federal money, most recently in the form of grants from the stimulus package.

Watch the full webcast and read testimony on the House Science and Technology Committee’s Web site.

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