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Donor Gives $5 Million to Aid Fermilab

28 May 2008 (All day)
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Fred Ullrich/Fermilab

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Fermilab will stay on track, thanks to an anonymous donation.

For once, staff at the United States's only remaining particle physics laboratory have received some good news. An anonymous donor has given the University of Chicago $5 million to be spent at cash-strapped Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. With the money, lab officials will be able to stop a rolling furlough program that since February has forced employees to take periodic unpaid leave and slashed their pay by 12.5%. The lab will still lay off roughly 140 workers, but officials also announced that those cuts would be restructured to give employees a chance to take voluntary layoffs before the involuntary ones begin.

"This is very unusual," Fermilab Director Piermaria Oddone said of the gift in an address to employees on Friday. "It's not a building that carries a name. It's really a commitment to science and the nation and in particular to particle physics as a long-range important undertaking for our nation." The news has bolstered morale among the rank and file. "This is definitely a weight that has been lifted," says Consolato Gattuso, an engineering physicist at the lab. "It gives us some light at the end of the tunnel."

Fermilab's financial crisis began in December, when the U.S. Congress passed a last-minute budget for the 2008 fiscal year (ScienceNOW, 19 December 2007). Legislators whacked Fermilab's budget from the $372 million requested by the Department of Energy (DOE) to $320 million, $22 million less than the lab had received in 2007. To balance the books, lab officials said they would have to cut about 200 of the lab's then-1950 employees. In addition, in February, officials instituted a furlough plan under which salaried employees had to take 1 week every other month as unpaid leave and hourly employees had to cut back their hours.

The savings from the furlough allowed lab officials to keep the lab's particle smasher, the Tevatron Collider, running all out in its quest to spot the famed Higgs boson, the missing link in physicists' theory of the known fundamental bits of matter. Fermilab researchers hope to discover the Higgs before it's snagged by the more powerful Large Hadron Collider, which should turn on this summer at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. The donation will be funnelled through the University of Chicago, which will formally contract with the lab to do additional work because Fermilab cannot directly accept a gift. It will enable the lab to stop the furlough after two of four planned rounds of leave. The lab was able to scrape up another $1 million, in part because about 50 employees have already jumped ship, Oddone says.

This is the second time in recent years that philanthropists have bailed out a beleaguered DOE lab. In 2006, Congress gave Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, too little money to run its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which is used to study a type of nuclear physics. James Simons, a theoretical physicist and billionaire hedge-fund guru then donated $13 million to Brookhaven to run the machine.

Fermilab officials have also reworked their layoff strategy. They submitted their plan, which was designed to retain the personnel essential to the future of the lab, in late April and hoped to make the layoffs in early May. But the plan included only involuntary layoffs and the cuts disproportionately fell on the lab's older employees, so DOE's general counsel asked for a rethink, Oddone says. "They strongly advised us to do a voluntary [phase] first," he says. The voluntary layoffs will take place in June, and the involuntary layoffs will follow in July. DOE policy does not allow the lab to offer "golden parachute" incentives to leave, Oddone says.

Although the donation ends the furlough, it does not solve Fermilab's problems. "The grain of salt is that it really does nothing to change the uncertainty with regard to the future," says Brendan Casey, a Fermilab particle physicist. "So there's some relief, but the underlying tension is still there." A DOE advisory panel will meet tomorrow and Friday to discuss the future of the lab and particle physics in the United States.

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