The GAO report said additional delays are expected for two of the five major projects.

The GAO report said additional delays are expected for two of the five major projects. TEK IMAGE / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / GETTY IMAGES

NSF’s ongoing major infrastructure project delays due to personnel, supply challenges, report says

Staffing challenges were partially at the root of delays for two of the agency’s construction facilities projects costing more than $100 million.

All five $100 million-plus National Science Foundation-funded facilities projects currently under construction have experienced delays, according to a Government Accountability Office report published June 12. 

Staffing shortages have affected two of the projects, the report said. NSF officials told GAO that three new research vessels are delayed partly because the shipbuilding workforce in Louisiana, where the vessels are under construction, hasn’t recovered from 2021’s Hurricane Ida, with housing in the area still scarce. 

Likewise, completion of a project to modernize the infrastructure of an Antarctic research station is delayed because of demand in the U.S. for construction workers and heavy equipment operators. This has forced NSF to hire more non-Americans whose background checks take longer. 

GAO also reported that construction errors, lack of materials and three out of four cranes being out of service at the research station in early November 2023 have hindered progress. 

An observatory in Chile, which will use the world’s largest digital camera, experienced the largest increases in estimated total project cost and forecasted completion date: $81.8 million and 31 months, respectively. NSF reported that a vacuum leak and malfunctioning dome crane, both since fixed, created the delays. 

“Cost and schedule are inextricably linked; therefore, the schedule delays experienced across all five major projects may result in increased costs in the future,” GAO wrote. 

The report said additional hold ups are expected for the observatory and Antarctic research station, but that information will not be available until NSF completes reviews in late spring and July.  

The other two projects are part of the Large Hadron Collider, which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and is located in Geneva, Switzerland. 

All of these delays are relative to time estimates made in June 2023. 

A NSF spokesperson said the report “noted that delays resulted from the pandemic and ensuing supply chain and labor issues.” 

GAO’s report is part of a requirement in the fiscal 2023 appropriations law for the oversight agency to review NSF major research facility projects. 

NSF has not fully implemented a GAO recommendation from 2019 that it assess its employees who oversee large facilities to identify any project management competency gaps and develop a plan to address them. 

GAO also recommended in December 2023 that NSF improve its cost estimate of the Antarctic research station project.