UNIVERSITY laboratories -- one of the sinews of United States scientific and technological strength -- are becoming old and obsolete. Experts warn that the deterioration threatens to undermine a vital source of American research and innovation and produce a generation of college students unfit to work in industry.
``This is probably one of the biggest problems faced by research universities,'' says Donald Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The problem is drawing increased attention in government and scientific circles.
In Congress, legislation was recently introduced in the House that could put up to $5 billion into upgrading university labs and research equipment between 1987 and 1996.
This week, the problem will be a predominant theme at a scheduled two-day conference in Washington on funding academic research facilities. It is being sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation's National Science Board.
``There is a lot of activity in this area right now,'' says Dr. Bernadine Healy, deputy director of the OSTP.
The concern is well justified. Studies have shown the average age of instruments and equipment in university labs is twice that of comparable equipment in industry. Moreover, as much as one-quarter of the equipment at top research universities in engineering and the computer and physical sciences is considered to be obsolete.
Nor does the problem stop with computers and calipers. According to the best estimates, renovating lab buildings themselves would take at least $5 billion over the next five years.
The problem of decrepit lab facilities parallels somewhat that of decaying bridges, roads, and other ``infrastructure.'' After a time of heady investment and expansion, a period of neglect set in. With academic research facilities, the boom came in the post-Sputnik era, when large amounts of federal money were poured into basic research.
But in the late 1960s the funding was turned off. Colleges, reeling from the twin blows of declining enrollments and rising costs, couldn't fill the gap. New investment was put off.
Today the problem created by years of neglect is aggravated by the cost and complexity of modern research tools. Moreover, rapid advances in technology make some labs and equipment obsolete in just a few years.
The implications of outmoded research facilities are far-reaching. For colleges, it could mean turning out graduates who are unprepared to work in industry. It may also mean a loss of staff, as academic scientists jump to better-equipped commercial labs. For the nation, it could hurt the process of scientific discovery -- two-thirds of America's basic (as opposed to applied) research takes place at universities.
Efforts are under way to turn the situation around. In recent years, federal and state governments have been putting more money into upgrading university labs and acquiring new instrumentation. Corporate patronage has increased, too, through such things as research grants, equipment donations, and free time on machines in industrial labs.
But private support still amounts to less than 8 percent of university spending on instruments, and experts contend that only a sustained effort by all parties will fix something so deeply rooted.
``This is a problem that has been developing for 15 years,'' says OSTP's Dr. Healy. ``The big thing is to get the motion in the right direction and sustain it for several years.''
Many in the university community see the House initiative as another step forward. The bill, introduced by Rep. Don Fuqua (D) of Florida, would set aside 10 percent of federal funds devoted to university R&D over a 10-year period for spending on facilities and equipment. The idea is not to cut into overall academic R&D funding by increasing research outlays a proportional amount beginning in 1987.
The proposal stipulates that such increases in research funds during most of the period would be provided only if schools can secure matching grants from states and the private sector.
Similar legislation aimed at revitalizing university labs and equipment is expected to be introduced in the Senate later this summer. The Senate has dealt with the issue before, but until now there has been no strong interest in the House. ``This is the first recognition by Congress that we have a major problem,'' says Harvey Kaiser, senior vice-president at Syracuse University.
No one expects quick action, though, given the federal budget deficits. Indeed, the House move at this point is seen as a way to focus congressional attention on the problem, with serious consideration likely in 1986. ``What we're trying to do right now is just educate the members,'' says a House Science and Technology Committee aide.