Are NIST Facilities Really Crumbling?

According to a study released by the National Academies, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) buildings in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, have significant deterioration of buildings and infrastructure problems. The situation has gotten so severe, says the study, that the conditions now undermine NIST’s ability to carry out its work. The fix for the problem will take hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the mid-2030s and triple its maintenance budget. The request for the study came from NIST, following Congress’ fiscal year 2021 appropriation.

Founded in 19901, NIST is one of the oldest federal government science agencies. Its current annual base budget, more than $1 billion, is one of the smallest. NIST performs and delivers research related to metrology and technical standards for such segments as microelectronics, telecommunications, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, materials, building integrity, and greenhouse gas monitoring.

Researchers at NIST deal with frequent power and climate-control failures and water leaks. For example, power outages destroyed one electron microscope worth $6 million, water leaks destroyed another microscope worth $2.5 million, and permanently degraded a $10 million facility housing a Kibble balance, a device that makes ultrasensitive mass measurements. There are also severe safety hazards, including explosions and chemical system leaks.

NIST deterioration is estimated to have delayed work by months or years and reduced productivity by 10% to 40% across different labs. The staff has invented many workarounds and fixes to improve temperature control, humidity control, cleanliness, and other laboratory defects… tasks well beyond the job descriptions of NIST researchers.

Estimates are that NIST will require between $300 million and $400 million in construction funding every year for the next 12 years, plus $120 million—$150 million in maintenance funding to prevent further deterioration.

According to NIST Director Laurie Locascio, although the Commerce Department now requires employees at its agencies to be on-site three days per week, exceptions are made “if your facilities basically aren’t appropriate for handling people.” That recently became the case with the agency’s main administrative building on its Gaithersburg campus.

This year, NIST is building up capacity to administer the $50 billion the Commerce Department will receive through the CHIPS and Science Act to fund industry-led efforts to bolster U.S. semiconductor R&D and manufacturing, a marquee initiative in the Biden administration’s industrial policy. I imagine it may be challenging to do from home.

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