Education

ISU scales down Veterinary Diagnostic Lab project

State support too weak for original plan, its leaders say

Leona McDeid, assistant scientist in the bacteriology lab, streaks plates Feb. 6 with bacteria samples for testing at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University in Ames. The lab’s future ability to sustain a high volume of processes, as well as its accreditation as a veterinary diagnostic lab, depends on funding it needs from the state. Wednesday, with state support millions less than needed, ISU officials told regents they intend to scale back plans for a new building. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Leona McDeid, assistant scientist in the bacteriology lab, streaks plates Feb. 6 with bacteria samples for testing at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University in Ames. The lab’s future ability to sustain a high volume of processes, as well as its accreditation as a veterinary diagnostic lab, depends on funding it needs from the state. Wednesday, with state support millions less than needed, ISU officials told regents they intend to scale back plans for a new building. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa State University is scaling down the size and cost of its proposed new Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory — a facility touted as a major underpinning of Iowa’s economy — because of lower-than-requested legislative funding.

The building was once envisioned as a 150,000-square-foot stand-alone lab costing $124 million, $100 million of which would have been state dollars. But the Legislature’s lower commitment of $63.5 million has ISU now looking at an 83,000- to 88,000-square-foot lab.

ISU this week is seeking Board of Regents approval to move forward with planning for that scaled-down project, and a regent committee meeting Wednesday in Iowa City agreed to recommend the full board grant it. If approved, the revised project budget will fall to $75 million, a 40 percent reduction.

Under the original proposal, ISU vowed to commit $24 million — $20 million in private donations and $4 million in university resources. The smaller budget reduces those ISU commitments to $11.5 million — a 52 percent drop.

ISU Interim Senior Vice President Pam Elliot Cain told regents the institution had little choice but to shrink the scope and size due to insufficient state support. And she told The Gazette she assumed lawmakers knew that would result from lesser funding — which is coming in the form of $1 million now and $12.5 million a year for the next five years.

ISU wanted $20 million a year for five years.

“That means we basically have to go back to the drawing board,” she said. “That’s a significant amount of dollars.”

State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, told The Gazette he has not been given reasons for the project changes.

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ISU officials, in making the case earlier this year for a new Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, noted its massive return on investment for the state. They said the state puts in about $4 million toward running its only full-accredited animal diagnostic lab and gets back nearly $32 million in an average year.

During animal health emergencies — like the 2015 bird flu outbreak — income spikes to more than $100 million, and those emergencies are becoming more common, according to lab officials.

Although the ISU lab — the busiest of 14 like it in the nation — has been a standout for years, administrators warn its accreditation is in peril due to critical space deficiencies; biosafety and biocontainment issues; and maintenance needs for the aging facility.

Interim Dean of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine Pat Halbur recently told lawmakers he’s “very confident we won’t get accredited again” without improvements.

Lab Director Rodger Main said earlier this year the lab most recently earned five years of accreditation in 2017.

“This reaccreditation in 2017 was granted in no small part due to the significant progress the accrediting body’s observed in ISU VDL’s efforts to address its facility infrastructure-related challenges,” Main said.

If the lab lost accreditation, it would lose “Tier I Lab” status in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, meaning it would no longer be authorized to “conduct testing that has official, regulatory, or program disease consequence.” But those diagnostic services from the lab are “a foundational element in supporting Iowa animal agriculture’s ability to sell animals and animal products (meat, milk, and eggs) into the global marketplace,” Main said in an email.

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