LAKE ALFRED, FLORIDA — Put expensive high-tech scientific equipment in a former citrus packing house more than 60 years old, throw in an overworked air conditioner, a corroding foundation, and the sticky Central Florida climate, and you’ve got problems.
The University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center is doing cutting-edge work to find cures for new biological threats to the U.S. citrus crop, but its researchers and staff housed in some of the facility’s older buildings are also waging a more immediate fight against bugs, rodents and other fauna that thrive in the muggy summer heat. In one lab in the packing house, traps for mice and insects sometimes lie alongside microscopes and testing equipment; staffers keep a large supply of bleach on hand to clean mold off walls, vents and even dishes used to test samples. Often, it’s a losing fight.
“The ants got into our incubators over here,” research technician Laurie Friedrich said, pointing to a wall stacked with what looks like about half-dozen dorm refrigerators. “When I came in in the morning, looking at the results of our studies, I can see the tracks where they tracked the pathogens all over the plates. And assumingly, they’ve tracked them somewhere else.”
The center’s work is crucial to the citrus industry: It receives millions of dollars in Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration grants each year to tackle diseases that are crippling citrus growers. The state’s orange production has been cut by more than half in the past decade by a disease called “citrus greening” that makes trees produce unripened fruit. More than 90 percent of the state’s groves are infected; so far, there is no cure. Researchers are trying everything from heat treatments to novel forms of genetically modifying plants as they search for a solution before the disease wipes out Florida’s industry and spreads to other citrus-producing areas in Texas and California.
But daily life in this shambling concrete packing house is symptomatic of another problem, one that cuts across the landscape of federally funded research: Maintaining its infrastructure. Most people think of innovation as requiring shiny new equipment, which it often does, but it also comes with the far more mundane requirement of clean, functional buildings to house it. Years of federal belt-tightening have starved laboratories of funding for routine maintenance, and the deterioration has reached the point that some researchers say the nation’s ability to conduct cutting-edge science is being damaged.
“At the very least, these failures can cause delays in research work and add extra costs,” a 2015 report on deferred maintenance at public agriculture colleges by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities found. “At worst, we are entering an era when the condition of facilities will limit our ability to conduct world-class research that is needed to keep our leadership edge.”
The Treasury Department estimates that the government-wide backlog of deferred maintenance on federal property is $185 billion — a figure that accounts for office buildings, National Parks, military installations and everything between. The Defense Department accounts for $135 billion of that, while the Interior Department has a $15.4 billion backlog for upkeep, according to 2016 financial statements.
A good chunk of that funding is for research facilities. The government owns hundreds of research sites across the country — more than 100 at the Department of Agriculture, 63 at the Department of Defense and 17 at the Department of Energy, to name a few. Though Cabinet departments aren’t consistent in reporting the needs of their labs, the Department of Energy has pegged its research facilitiy maintenance backlog at $2.2 billion, while NASA estimates it needs $2.39 billion and the National Institutes of Health, $1.8 billion. The Agriculture Department, meanwhile, estimated its research infrastructure needs across 24 priority sites at about $1 billion in a 2012 report, noting at the time that it has “a significant number of older facilities and a constantly aging infrastructure overall. Many of these facilities are at the limit or well in excess of their functional lifespan according to engineering standards.”
And institutions that receive federal research grants are in the same situation. Land-grant university agriculture colleges, which were created by Congress and get federal funding to address key questions in farming, have a more than $9 billion maintenance backlog nationally.
“The resources available to renovate and or to build new space are extremely limited,” said Jeanna Mastrodicasa, associate vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agriculture. “If somebody shows up with a big check, trust me, I’ll build anything you want. But we just aren’t receiving it.” The backlog at Florida’s agriculture college is about $16 million.
A solution will likely have to involve more funding and changes to how research facilities can generate and save money — moves that would require a nuanced approach from the administration and, ultimately, Congress.
“The fix is that you have to start now, work at it, stay with it and put enough money at it,” said Lynn Orr, who served as the Energy Department’s under secretary for science and energy in the last two years of the Obama administration. “And whatever you do, don’t let it get worse.”
The problem of deferred maintenance in the nation’s innovation labs has reached a critical stage even as President Donald Trump is proposing to further trim federal research spending. The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Agriculture and Energy departments, EPA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were targeted for billions of dollars in cuts under the White House budget, causing pushback from public health advocates and lawmakers.
While the United States has been the envy of the research world, that prowess, at least in some areas, is starting to slip, they say. China now spends 6 percent more on agricultural research than the U.S. does, for example, and other countries are catching up. If the maintenance backlog isn’t addressed, domestic researchers could fall even further behind.
Much of that problem comes down to old buildings.
Energy Department research facilities often date to the Manhattan Project in World War II, while Defense and Agriculture department sites can be even older. The average age of a Defense research building is 47 years old, and decades of underfunded maintenance mean that what were once small roof leaks, electrical issues and poor heating and cooling systems have become big problems.
Equipment and maintenance for federal labs tend to come from separate pools of money, which is good for the researchers who need to acquire new technology to do their work, but it leaves a strain on facilities that need to be retrofitted to serve new purposes.
“You end up with state-of-the-art equipment, the best and brightest people, in physical structures that are antiquated,” John Montgomery, former director of research at the Naval Research Laboratory, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing in May. One building in the lab’s portfolio was so bad that researchers set up plastic tents over the $15 million of scientific equipment they were working with to protect it from a leaking roof, Montgomery said.
Lawmakers and other officials like to build new buildings and set specific research goals, not pay for roofs and HVAC systems at old ones. They also tend to be opposed to having money aimed at research and development used for plumbing and other systems that Orr described as not “the sexy part of the lab.” When budgets are trim, as they have been in years past, maintenance is often one of the first things to go.
Federal labs are largely dependent on Congress to receive and generate funds. Unlike businesses, departments can’t take out loans or save money from one year to the next, unless specifically given permission by lawmakers. As a result, many facilities are constrained in how they manage their own funds, only able to do patch jobs with the few dollars they have for maintenance.
“People have loans for large capacity investments, but the government can’t do that,” said Melissa Flagg, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for research during the Obama administration. “So it becomes really hard.”
Fixing it won’t be easy. While Trump has called for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that many hope could help fix up labs and public research facilities, it would only be a one-time influx of cash, not the long-term funding mechanism that advocates for federal research say is needed. The plan also relies on a $800 billion match from private industry, which might not be possible for facilities that handle research related to national security issues or in research areas that private companies have traditionally not shown much interest.
"I kind of worry about this whole private-public thing because it’s going to allow people to maybe jump the line in case of some projects,” Rep. Collin Peterson said recently. The Minnesota Democrat pointed out that research on regional crop varieties generally has to be done by public researchers because it doesn’t have the quick return on investment that companies are looking for.
A long-term solution comes with its own issues. Departments can, in some cases, rent out space or provide buildings to nongovernment researchers for a fee, but facilities operators are worried that may cause congressional appropriators to pull funding from them all together amid broader efforts to reduce the government’s footprint.
What’s more, departments each have different mechanisms and tools for paying for maintenance, each requiring specific fixes. For example, the Defense Department’s renovation money is doled out through a formula that gives R&D facilities 40 percent less than public restrooms.
Changing those mechanisms would require congressional action, and getting nuanced tweaks to multiple agency spending authorities would be difficult even without the current gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“It’s not simple,” Orr said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
And the longer the government waits, the more federal research will be put at risk.
“Every single one of our research centers pretty much is like this to some extent: older buildings, older facilities,” Mastrodicasa said, referencing the stained ceiling tiles, heat and poor ventilation in the citrus-packing house lab.
“If we are talking about infrastructure in this country, to me it’s a part of infrastructure,” she continued. “It’s just like bridges, it’s just like roads.”