Fermilab Cancels Layoffs

1 July 2008 (All day)


Origami, anyone? Fermilab suddenly has a small surplus of pink paper, as lab officials won't have to make layoffs after all.

Since December, scientists, engineers, technicians, and staff at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, have waited anxiously to find out who will be asked to leave in layoffs forced by an unexpected budget cut. Now they can relax: Fermilab is canceling all impending involuntary layoffs. That move was made possible yesterday, when President George W. Bush signed a $186 billion bill to fund the war in Iraq that also provides money to Fermilab, the United States's only dedicated particle physics lab.

"I'm personally greatly relieved," says Robert Kutschke, a physicist at Fermilab. "Unwinding from all of this is going to take a while." Fermilab Director Pier Oddone says that between 90 and 100 jobs will be saved.

The cancellation of the layoffs marks a high point in a roller-coaster ride for the laboratory. Fermilab's troubles began in December, when Congress passed a last-minute "omnibus" budget for fiscal year 2008 that cut the lab's budget from a requested $372 million to $320 million, $22 million less than it had received in 2007 (ScienceNOW, 19 December 2007). Those cuts stopped work on future projects for the lab, including the NO?A experiment, which was to study wispy particles called neutrinos by shooting a beam of them into an underground detector in Minnesota. The funding shortfall also endangered the lab's flagship atom smasher, the Tevatron collider. The Tevatron is racing to spot a long-sought particle called the Higgs boson before it's snared by a more powerful machine, the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, which turns on this summer. To keep the Tevatron running, lab officials instituted a rolling furlough, which required staff members to take 1 week of unpaid leave every 2 months, and said that they would lay off about 200 of the lab's then-1950 employees.

Recently, things have been looking up for Fermilab. Last month, an anonymous donor gave the University of Chicago $5 million to be spent at Fermilab, and that money enabled officials to cancel the furlough (ScienceNOW, 28 May). Then 2 weeks ago, Congress included $400 million for science in the supplemental spending bill for the war, including $62.5 million for the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science, which owns Fermilab (ScienceNOW, 20 June). Congress specifically instructed DOE to "eliminate all furloughs and reductions in force which are a direct result of budgetary constraints."

"My first reaction was enormous gratitude to the people [in Congress] who worked so hard on this," Oddone says. The money will stop the involuntary layoffs officials had scheduled for this month, he says. At DOE's request, Fermilab offered employees the opportunity to take voluntary layoffs. Last month, about 50 employees took that option, and those layoffs will not be reversed, Oddone says. Roughly 50 other people left the lab before June, so it now has a staff of about 1850.

Fermilab still has plenty to worry about. To keep the Tevatron collider running through 2010, the lab's budget will have to rebound to above the 2007 level for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. However, observers expect Congress to continue the current budget into 2009 and wait to write a new one until after the next president takes office in January. "In a week or so, everybody will start worrying about what's going to happen in October," Kutschke says. "But that hasn't happened yet."

Meanwhile, the situation remains murky at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California, which has been moving away from particle physics and toward x-ray studies for materials science, structural biology, and other fields. In April, SLAC laid off 125 of its 1600 employees because of the budget crunch in DOE's high-energy physics program (Science, 11 January, p. 142). But it also shuttered its PEP-II collider, which focused on precision studies of particles called B mesons and was scheduled to shut down in September. So the lab may not need all of those people back. "I don't yet know what this means for us," says SLAC Director Persis Drell. The funding bill says that layoffs that are "a result of completed work" should stand.