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:: By Zak Stambor

:: Image 1 courtesy Fermi National
:: Accelerator Laboratory

:: Image 2 courtesy Argonne
:: National Laboratory

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Chicago Journal ::

The labs’ best-laid plans…

Fermi and Argonne revise operations after budget cuts.

Since receiving their official fiscal 2008 budgets in December, nearly three months after the federal government’s fiscal year began, administrators at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory—both of which the University manages—have started to prematurely shutter some facilities, shelve upcoming projects, and cut staff. With a Fermilab budget that dropped $27 million below FY 2007’s $347 million mark and its Argonne counterpart coming in at $21 million under last year’s $530 million total, belt-tightening was the order of the day.


The Department of Energy’s reduced 2008 fiscal-year budget is forcing Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to cut nearly 200 jobs this spring.

The cuts, which came despite promised increases, spurred national laboratory officials, along with University President Robert J. Zimmer and other administrators, to take the case for restoring the labs’ funding to Washington. That lobbying was part of a nationwide effort in the wake of a 2008 budget that lopped $400 million from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds most physical-science research at the 21 national laboratories and technology centers. The efforts worked, leading to a proposed 2009 budget, released in February, that essentially does an about-face. Even so, both Fermilab and Argonne will go ahead with their cost-saving measures.

At Fermilab, which expected its FY 2008 budget to grow to $372 million and instead saw it shrink to $320 million, the slashes created a domino effect. With funding cut for NOvA—a multisite experiment to study neutrino oscillations, slated to begin its first six-year run in 2013—Fermilab indefinitely delayed plans for its so-called Project X, a $500 million linear accelerator that relies on NOvA advances. Project X had been scheduled to be up and running by 2015.

That delay is particularly troublesome, says Young-Kee Kim, a University physics professor and Fermilab deputy director, because Project X may serve as a stepping stone for Fermilab’s hosting of the International Linear Collider (ILC). The proposed $15 to $20 billion, 35-kilometer particle accelerator would be a scientific complement to the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research, together puzzling out the secrets of dark matter and dark energy. But the official budget also slashed the ILC research-and-development budget by 75 percent. The result, Kim says, is that ILC–related work has essentially shut down, leaving Fermilab’s “future anchor really hurt.”

If approved, the Office of Science’s FY 2009 budget would increase to $4.72 billion from $3.97 billion. But until the spending bill passes, says Kim, “we have to live with whatever the budget is—we can’t spend more, even if we think more money may be coming.” Kim is not alone in her caution. Office of Science Director Raymond Orbach is nervous about what may happen if the FY 2009 plan fails. “If this is not honored, then I think we’re in real trouble,” he said in a February conference call with reporters, noting that inadequately funding research could weaken America’s edge in technological innovation.


The cuts limit use of the Advanced Photon Source, which maps images like this bacterial structure.

Decreasing federal funding of both physical-science and engineering research—and accompanying declines in PhDs and high-tech exports—prompted President Bush to sign the August 2007 America COMPETES Act, promising to double FY 2008 funding for basic research. But in December’s last-minute negotiations over a sizable omnibus appropriations bill, that research took a significant hit.

Even with the prospect of a rosier 2009 budget, Fermilab must lay off nearly 200 people, about ten percent of its workforce, in April or May. From February through the end of the fiscal year in September, the lab is requiring employees to take rolling furloughs—roughly two-and-a-half days a month without pay. The decreased staffing puts the lab’s projects, such as its goal to continuously run the Tevatron, the world’s largest particle accelerator, in doubt. “The Tevatron is a very complex machine,” says Kim, “and it requires experts to operate it. If some of those experts are laid off or are doing furlough time, if problems arise, we may not be able to fix them immediately.”

Argonne, meanwhile, laid off more than 50 employees in February, says lab director Robert Rosner. In January the lab shut down its Intense Pulse Neutron Source, a facility used to characterize the structures of plastics, polymers, and other soft materials. Argonne had expected to close the facility in a few years, but the 2008 budget hastened the date, says Rosner, and its work will transfer to Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, or another national lab. It also cut access to the Advanced Photon Source by 20 percent. “It’s been a shock to the system,” Rosner says, “and we’re trying to figure out how to go forward with the minimal amount of damage to science. The key is making sure the folks who deal with bringing science into the future are protected."