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Pandemic lockdowns, supply shortages, and inflation wreak havoc with big science projects

Pandemic lockdowns, supply shortages, and inflation wreak havoc with big Science projects


Atop Cerro Pachón, a 2715-meter peak in the Chilean Andes, astronomers are building an extraordinary movie camera. With its 8-meter telescope and giant 3.2-gigapixel camera, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will scan the southern sky once every 3 days, pinpointing billions of galaxies, searching for supernova explosions, and tracking changes in the heavens. In early 2020, workers were on track to complete the $483 million telescope by last month. “We were a freight train moving at full speed,” says Victor Krabbendam, Rubin’s construction project manager.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Travel restrictions slowed construction, as did shortages of supplies such as steel. Now, the project remains 2 years from completion, and its cost has climbed by about 15%—although the National Science Foundation (NSF) has yet to set an exact figure. “When the train comes to a complete stop, it’s hard to get it going again,” Krabbendam says.

The Rubin observatory is only one of many large science projects around the world that have been pushed behind schedule and overbudget by pandemic-related delays, supply chain issues, and, now, the worst inflation in 40 years. Scientists build a major project using the same process engineers employ to build a bridge, developing a detailed cost and schedule known as a performance baseline that guides every step of construction. That baseline is nearly sacrosanct. Ordinarily, if a project starts to exceed its budget, funders lop off parts of it to contain costs. They increase a project’s budget and stretch its schedule—“rebaseline” it—only as a last resort.

But these are not ordinary times. The United States’s premier builder of big facilities, the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, has 13 baselined projects costing more than $100 million and has or is considering rebaselining six of them. NSF has four, including the Rubin observatory, and intends to rebaseline them all. “It’s a huge issue and a very complex problem,” says William Madia, former director of two DOE national laboratories.

The pandemic pushed most projects behind schedule. Physicists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are building a 750-meter-long superconducting linear accelerator to power a new x-ray laser called the Linac Coherent Light Source-II. They were just installing the accelerator when COVID-19 struck and, on 19 March 2020, the state of California issued a shelter in place order that halted work for 3 months. Officials soon realized they couldn’t keep to their schedule, says Norbert Holtkamp, SLAC’s director for the project.

In the United States, long delays invariably drive up costs, Holtkamp says, because funding agencies count labor in a project’s cost. Later that summer, DOE extended the project’s completion date from June 2022 to January 2024 and increased its cost by 8.7%, to $1.136 billion. Most of the increase was contingency to cover further delays, Holtkamp notes. “We didn’t know how many COVID waves we would have.”

Projects less far along have suffered from the same supply chain issues that have plagued consumers. Physicists at Argonne National Laboratory are rebuilding the Advanced Photon Source, a kilometer-long, ring-shaped particle accelerator used to generate intense x-rays. They had planned to start installing the new $815 million ring this year, but rescheduled it to April 2023 as they struggled to obtain, among other things, the microchips needed to control power supplies, says Stephen Streiffer, deputy director for science and technology at Argonne. “You’ll talk to a vendor about a chip that used to be an off-the-shelf item, and they’ll say we’ll get it to you in 6 months,” he says.

Climbing costs

U.S. funding agencies have or are considering revising the detailed budget and schedule—or baseline—for multiple projects already under construction.

Argonne Leadership Computing Facility upgrade Supercomputer Department of Energy $286 million Yes
Linac Coherent Light Source-II X-ray laser Department of Energy $1.14 billion Done
Advanced Photon Source Upgrade X-ray synchrotron Department of Energy $815 million Maybe
U.S. contribution to ITER International fusion reactor Department of Energy $2.5 billion Yes
Muon-to-Electron-Conversion Experiment Particle physics Department of Energy $274 million Yes
U.S. contribution to High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC) accelerator upgrade European atom smasher Department of Energy $243 million Yes
Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science Update McMurdo station National Science Foundation $410 million Yes
U.S. contribution to HL-LHC detector upgrade European atom smasher National Science Foundation $152 million Yes
Vera C. Rubin Observatory Telescope National Science Foundation $471 million Yes
Regional Class Research Vessels Three 60-meter ships National Science Foundation $360 million Yes
Department of Energy; National Science Foundation

Now, inflation is straining projects even further, as, for example, the price of steel has doubled over the past 2 years. In principle, a project currently under construction may be shielded from rising prices if contracts with vendors were signed before inflation kicked in. In practice, however, if small vendors making highly specialized parts have to eat the cost increases themselves, even bigger supply problems may follow. “There’s a risk that companies start going out of business because of inflation,” Streiffer says.

U.S. researchers often argue that projects in Europe and Asia are insulated from one factor, increased labor costs due to delays, because they typically charge salaries to laboratories rather than to projects. But researchers in Europe counter that when a project needs more money, they face a stiffer challenge getting it.

In Lund, Sweden, physicists are building the European Spallation Source (ESS), a brand-new, accelerator-powered neutron source that will be the world’s most intense. COVID-19 delays forced leaders to go to the project’s 13 member nations to request more money, says Kevin Jones, ESS’s technical director, who spent 28 years at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Having worked in the DOE system, I can tell you that [request] was a lot harder,” he says. In December 2021, the ESS’s governing council pushed its completion date back 2 years to December 2027 and raised its cost 20% to €3.3 billion.

In the United States, NSF ordinarily asks managers of a troubled project to “descope” it, or trim its capabilities, before the agency rebaselines it—a measure that requires approval from NSF’s governing National Science Board. But given the current headwinds, NSF plan to rebaseline all its projects, says Matthew Hawkins, head of NSF’s large facilities office. “Why would we want to take science capability out of a project as the first step?” he says. “We’d much rather go to the board and ask for more money.”

In contrast, DOE is sticking with its policy of carefully trimming a project’s scope before rebaselining. That’s because within DOE, a rebaselined project must be reviewed not just by the leaders of the Office of Science, but by a committee of higher level officials from all parts of the agency, says Stephen Binkley, the office’s principal deputy director. “Then it gets really, really tight scrutiny and the case has to be made really carefully,” he says.

DOE officials expect supply chain issues to remain nettlesome even if the pandemic and inflation wane. Last month, an Office of Science report detailed potential bottlenecks in the supplies of everything from materials such as niobium, a superconducting metal, to certain types of software.

Projects that have not yet set a budget or schedule may be better able to cope with shortages and inflation, as they can roll rising costs into their baselines. But if any project, baselined or not, becomes too expensive, funders could simply cancel it. “It’s conceivable that projects could be dropped,” Binkley says. “But, I think it’s fair to say we’re not at the point where we have to do that.”

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