Exploring Options For NBAF | KCUR

Exploring Options For NBAF

May 1, 2012

It’s another big week for NBAF, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction in Manhattan, Kan.

A panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences will be hearing expert testimony about the animal health lab in three teleconferences, beginning tomorrow. And the project’s future may be at stake because this committee is tasked with reviewing cost-cutting alternatives to NBAF.

The teleconference lineup provides some indication of what issues will be considered by the committee in its evaluation:

Wednesday: First up is the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, which studies potential bioterror agents and points of vulnerability.

Thursday: The director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases will testify.  The institute’s mission is similar to that of the NBAF, but the lab cannot accommodate research on large animals. Such capability is necessary for research on Foot and Mouth Disease, which is a top priority for the new lab.

Friday: The director of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories will talk about that facility’s research on vector borne diseases, or those usually spread by insects, also an important aspect of the NBAF research.

The teleconferences are open to the public. Information is available on the website of the National Academy of Sciences.

Escalating costs for NBAF — now projected at $1.14 billion — have raised questions in Congress about whether Department of Homeland Security even needs the new lab.  An undersecretary with DHS recently told Congress that the agency might not have sufficient budget to build the lab as planned.  And federal funding for NBAF was almost eliminated in the 2013 budget.

Enter this new NAS committee, which was formed at the request of DHS. Among the options under consideration: Scaling back the NBAF design or modifying the plan so scientists at the NBAF could collaborate with researchers at existing U.S. and foreign facilities.

Still, DHS says on its NBAF site that, "given the extensive and rigorous site selection process carried out by the government from 2006-09, the panel will not revisit the site selection or consider alternative locations for NBAF other than Manhattan, Kansas."

A different NAS committee is currently reviewing the safety and security of the plans for the lab in Kansas. That report is due June 30.