A study two years in the making concluded that the NIH's Bethesda, Md., campus needs a $1.3 billion upgrade to its buildings and facilities in order to succeed in what it calls "a highly competitive global biomedical research environment."
Essential maintenance has been deferred for many years, the report noted, putting NIH's "ability to fulfill its mission at substantial risk."
"The nature of science has changed in recent years and become more transdisciplinary. It doesn't follow the traditional, rigid discipline that it has in the past," Kenneth Kizer, who chaired the Committee on Assessing the Capital Needs of the NIH, told BioWorld. "We need different types of facilities and spaces. That will be an increasing issue going forward for NIH. Almost three-quarters of buildings are more than 20 years old, and they are not designed and constructed to support where science is going."
The rapid advances in science have left many of the buildings and facilities behind the times, Kizer continued, and new "design and construction must factor in the reality that things are changing so fast."
The study, Managing the NIH Bethesda Campus's Capital Assets for Success in a Highly Competitive Global Biomedical Research Environment, was conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine at the NIH's request and took two years to complete.
At 310 acres, the Bethesda campus contains about 20,000 employees and contractors and more than 12 million square feet of facilities divvied between nearly 100 buildings. The facilities include wet and dry labs, a 200-bed research hospital, administrative spaces and assorted utilities.
Not only is a substantial amount of money needed for the upgrade, the report concluded that money will need to be budgeted in the future so that there is not another instance of the unnecessarily deferred maintenance. The recommended $1.3 billion update should be allocated in two tranches over a five-year period, Kizer said, initially allocating $700 million to address the backlog of maintenance of repairs. The committee recommended the remaining $600 million be allocated after priorities are assessed and the work can be done in a logical and orderly manner. Congressional appropriations for NIH buildings and facilities was increased from $150 million to $200 million this year.
Many of the upgrades don't involve the latest technology, such as the unsexy fixing of roofs to stop leaks as well as repairing water systems. But putting those repairs off has made it increasingly difficult for scientists to do their work. That makes getting appropriations tough.
"It's hard to get money for what might be perceived as mundane, day-to-day needs," Kizer said.
Age is a critical factor in the recommendation, as 72% of the facilities on the campus are more than 20 years old and much of the supporting infrastructure is significantly older.
"How we design and construct the facilities has be factored into the reality that things are changing so fast that we need to make modifications," Kizer said. "We need to design facilities with an eye toward how change rapidly occurs."
The report identified the campus' Building 12, which is used for high-performance computing, the Building 14/28 complex, also called the animal vivarium, and the section of Building 10 occupied by the Clinical Center as the highest priorities for repairs. The committee also recommended the NIH integrate its research strategic plan with its capital facility asset management plans, which would include a detailed, 10-year plan to reduce the backlog of maintenance and repairs.
The committee also recommended taking a strong look at how other federal agencies maintain their mission-critical research portfolios, including NASA, the USDA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NRL Federal Credit Union, to incorporate their best practices.
In the past several decades, the report noted, biomedical research increasingly expanded beyond distinct research fields to include transdisciplinary efforts that include biology, psychology, sociology and technology. That overlap model has such profound implications for future planning, the report stated, that the committee recommends the "NIH continue to prioritize collaboration among intramural research programs through shared space and flexible facilities to accommodate rapidly changing research strategies and needs."
The report can be downloaded for free from nap.edu/25483.