Like a rusting scythe, the nation's university laboratories - at the cutting edge of US scientific research - are becoming old and obsolete. The deterioration is threatening to undermine a key source of US scientific and technological strength and produce a generation of scientists ill equipped to work in industry.
''I regard the instrumentation issue as being one of the most acute facing universities today,'' says Dr. Marvin L. Goldberger, president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
For the past couple of years, federal and state governments as well as the private sector have been putting more money into refurbishing university labs and buying new research equipment and instruments. But the care packages have not been enough to turn around a problem that has been building for nearly two decades, experts in the academic and scientific communities warn.
''There has been an increased recognition of the problem,'' says Dr. Eamon Kelly, president of Tulane University in New Orleans. ''But that recognition hasn't been transferred into a financial impact.''
The problem looms large:
* The average age of instruments and equipment in university labs is estimated to be twice that of comparable ones in industry.
* One-quarter of the equipment at top research universities in several areas (computer and physical sciences, and engineering) is considered obsolete, according to the National Science Foundation.
* It will take an estimated $1 billion to $4 billion to bring college labs and research tools up to par. California alone, according to a study last year, needs $1 billion to renovate old and build new facilities at its nine state-run campuses.
In the post-Sputnik era, the federal government poured hefty sums into basic research. The brain boom proved effective: It helped cement the United States as a world leader in university science.
But then, in the late 1960s, the funding tap was closed down. Colleges, meanwhile, faced with the twin blows of rising costs and declining enrollments throughout the 1970s, didn't have the money to put into computers and calipers. So new purchases were put off.
The problem today is aggravated by the cost and complexity of modern research tools. An electron microscope facility, for instance, might run $500,000. A few colleges have turned down computers donated by corporations because they couldn't afford the up-keep. Equipment can become outdated in just a few years.
Nor does the concern stop with instruments. To probe new frontiers requires new labs as well. Dr. Roy Weinstein, dean of the University of Houston's College of Natural Sciences and Math, notes that molecular chemistry has advanced to the point where students should be learning to cut and splice genes in the classroom. Then comes the caveat: ''It costs a lot of money to start a lab in that field.''
The implications of this dearth of refurbishing and renewal of research centers are large. For colleges, it could mean turning out graduates unable to handle jobs in the work world. It could also mean more academic researchers jumping to better-equipped industrial labs to carry out their work.
For the nation, the danger lies in a slowdown in the search for new knowledge - some two-thirds of US basic scientific research is carried out in the universities - at a time of intensifying scientific and technical competition worldwide.
The federal government hasn't been indifferent to the problem. Federal outlays for basic research and manpower needs at universities have been increased in recent years.
So, too, has the amount earmarked for equipment. This has been funneled through agencies such as the Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health , and the National Science Foundation (NSF) - the latter almost doubling its allotments for instrumentation in two years.
The Department of Defense will spend $30 million annually for the next four years on new equipment.
But demand continues to outstrip supply - the Pentagon had requests of $645 million for its $30 million allotment last year - and little is trickling down beyond top-tier schools. ''It's clear that the private, state, and federal resources are having a big impact at the best research labs,'' says Edward Hayes , NSF controller. ''But when you get down to the last 50, they're still having difficulty....''
With federal funding stretched thin, industry has become a prime new patron. Corporate aid has come in a variety of forms, including research grants, equipment donations and discounts, and free time on machines in industrial labs.
This has helped many schools. But private support amounts to less than 8 percent of university spending on instruments. And there is also enduring ethical concern associated with any tightening of university-industry ties: Will the corporate coziness compromise academic freedom?
States are another source for lab and equipment largess, and they, too, have been chipping in more. Then there are the colleges themselves, which are trying new approaches: leasing research tools (computers, for instance), pooling equipment (Tulane, among others, is building a central instrumentation center to serve several departments), and setting up special endowments (Caltech is planning one to chip away at a $3 million-a-year lab bill).
All this is helping to ease - but not alleviate - deteriorating lab conditions. What's needed, experts contend, is a sustained, coordinated effort by industry, states, and the federal government - particularly Uncle Sam - to make university labs a higher national priority. ''The steps being taken by the states and industry still leave a sizable gap that can only be filled by federal intervention,'' says Harvey Kaiser, a vice-president at Syracuse University.