University Research Infrastructure Needs Federal Support, Subcommittee Hears

Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing to examine the research and research training infrastructure of universities and colleges. The hearing was held as part of the Committee’s effort to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act.  Members and witnesses focused on academic research facilities, cyberinfrastructure capabilities, and the appropriate role of the federal government in sustaining such infrastructure. 

"Our focus on this legislation is a direct acknowledgement of the fact that America’s science and technology enterprise underpins the long-term economic competitiveness of our country. The partnership between the federal government and our nation’s colleges and universities has been highly successful and has led to a great number of societal and economic benefits,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (IL-03).

Witnessed pointed out that as states have faced growing economic challenges, state support for research-related expenses in many public universities has declined, and charitable giving and endowment returns to both public and private institutions have also fallen sharply.

“Successful R&D takes more than intellectual freedom and grant funding. You also need state-of-the-art lab space, networks, instruments, and computing facilities. Public institutions especially are suffering as the recession has eroded state support. I am worried that unless we actively modernize our R&D facilities, we could not only be spending federal research dollars inefficiently, but we could lose our position as scientific leaders,” said Lipinski. “Even before the economic downturn, the 2005 Survey of Science and Engineering Research facilities found that academic institutions were deferring $3.5 billion in needed renovation projects.”

In addition to supporting cutting edge science through research grants, the National Science Foundation (NSF) invests in the infrastructure that enables such research. Approximately 24 percent ($1.8 billion) of NSF’s FY 2011 budget is devoted to research infrastructure. These infrastructure investments are generally large, multi-user facilities, distributed instrumentation networks, or large pieces of equipment such as telescopes, research vessels, or accelerators that benefit an entire scientific discipline and could not be achieved without significant federal support.

The physical infrastructure for research includes not only bricks-and-mortar buildings, but also research instrumentation and a robust cyberinfrastructure. Cyberinfrastructure, which consists of computing systems, data storage systems, data repositories, and advanced instruments, has become increasingly important to all science and engineering disciplines. The Office of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF requested a budget of $228 million in FY 2011, a 6.4 percent increase from FY 2010.

Members and witnesses also discussed the balance between investing in the research itself and investing in the infrastructure that underlies and supports both research activities and workforce training. Witnesses noted that investments in infrastructure at their universities have increased the productivity of researchers, and expressed the hope that adequate support for both areas could be achieved without detracting from one or the other.

(Feb. 23, 2010)