the ground facilities, ships, and aircraft stationed in Antarctica allow scientists to study the atmosphere, ice, oceans, and geology of the region.
Regardless of their detailed characteristics, all large facility projects are being affected by the accelerating development of information technologies. Increasing quantities and varieties of information are being gathered, rapidly analyzed, and interpreted. Information technologies are also changing the fundamental nature of many large facility projects. New information technologies are making it possible, for example, for many large facilities to consist of smaller instruments and research projects in widely distributed geographic locations. The George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, which is intended to improve the seismic design and performance of the US civil and mechanical infrastructure, will consist of 15 experimental equipment sites linked by a high-performance Internet system. Elements of EarthScope, a distributed project to study the structure and dynamics of North America, will operate in nearly every county in the United States during the project’s lifetime of 8-10 years. The proposed National Ecological Observatory Network would consist of geographically distributed observatories linked to laboratories, data archives, and computer modeling facilities.
In FY 1995, NSF created the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account to support the “acquisition, construction, commissioning, and upgrading of major research equipment, facilities, and other such capital assets” that cost more than several tens of millions of dollars.
The MREFC account was created to separate the construction funding for a large facility—which can rise and fall dramatically over the course of a few years—from the more continuous funding of facility operations and individual-investigator research. The account, however, has remained too small to fund all the large facility projects that NSF would like to undertake now and in the future, as the National Science Board (NSB) points out in its report Science and Engineering Infrastructure for the 21st Century.
Of NSF’s FY 2004 budget request of $5.48 billion, about 24.5 percent, or $1.34 billion, is for the budget category of “tools,” which includes support for large facilities and the small- and medium-scale infrastructure needed for state-of-the-art research.1 The remainder of NSF’s research and education budget is divided into two additional categories: “ideas” and “people.” In the tools category, the request for the MREFC account was $202 million—about 15 percent of the tools budget request and about 3.7 percent of NSF’s total request.