Inadequate science facilities plague research, faculty hiring

Science students are using some of the oldest, most inadequate classrooms on campus, and administrators say renovations and new facilities are at least eight years away.

Michael King, chemistry department chair, said the science departments are more engaged in research than in the past but the University has run out of laboratory space to accommodate increased activity. Science departments are also having difficulty providing new faculty with adequate research space, and in some cases are unable to hire additional staff.

“I think we’re in a situation in my department where we can’t bring in any new faculty, including replacing retired professors,” said Robert Donaldson, chair of the biological sciences department. He added that GW provides a standard of 450 square feet of research space per professor, while most universities give professors closer to 1,000 square feet.

Donaldson also said about 10 percent of students wishing to register for a laboratory course in his department are turned away because of space restrictions.

Biology is one of the most popular majors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, with 158 declared majors in fall 2002. It was the school’s fourth most popular major, behind psychology, political science and English. Other science departments include chemistry, physics, geology and biological anthropology.

Officials said Corcoran Hall, which houses the departments of chemistry and physics, has a malfunctioning electrical system, among other problems. The University is currently working to improve the nearly 80-year-old hall’s power supply. Corcoran Hall was the first building constructed by GW on the Foggy Bottom campus.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said building a new science facility would cost about $50 million, which the University currently does not have available to spend. He said revenue from a mandatory summer session for rising juniors, which administrators are currently discussing, could help GW fund new science facilities.

“It’s reasonable to say that, for academic affairs, this is a high priority among a number of high priorities, and therein lies the fundamental problem,” said Craig Linebaugh, associate vice president for academic planning and special projects. “The resources that can be put toward those initiatives are probably not sufficient to do everything we want to do.”

He said science facilities have substantial ongoing costs, including “a lot more power, water (and) ventilation” than other types of buildings.

But the University has added several new facilities for other departments in the last few years, including the Media and Public Affairs and the Elliott School of International Affairs buildings, and it is constructing a new business school.

Trachtenberg said departments across the University are demanding new facilities, higher pay and more scholarship money, but it becomes a matter of the cost of the project, who makes the best case and which is in the greatest demand.

“If you have a hot coal in your right hand, a hot coal in your left hand and a bucket of water in front of you, how do you decide which hand to put in the water first?” Trachtenberg said, adding, “It’s not that we love the science department less.”

Small-scale renovations have occurred periodically over the last few years. Most recently, a laboratory in Bell Hall for computational molecular biology was renovated last summer. The University provided funds for new furnishings and an air conditioning system. New equipment was provided with a $1.7 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, including a wireless computer network system and instruments for DNA analysis.

Some students noticed inefficiencies with the science equipment and classrooms. David Goodwin, a freshman pre-medical student, said he works in old buildings using old equipment in his introductory biology and chemistry classes.

“I think that the facilities at my high school were better than what I work with here,” he said.

William Frawley, CCAS dean, said he hopes to get a new facility in the next five to eight years, depending on planning and fundraising.

“This is a priority for me. We must have a facility … to compete with the schools we want to compete with,” Frawley said. “I am committed to this and committed to raising the funds for it.”

A new facility might also benefit other departments of the University, officials said. Frawley said a new science building could free up space around campus for the humanities and social sciences.

-Julie Gordon and Andrea Nurko contributed to this report.

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