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Energy Department's National Labs Avoid Major Disruptions

12 April 2011 5:21 pm
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Since early February, scientists supported by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science have been bracing for massive layoffs at the department's 10 national laboratories and the temporary closure of many of the large user facilities located there. The culprit was vicious budget hacking by a U.S. Congress seemingly bent on reducing the federal deficit. Instead, the agency will see its annual budget for science clipped by a mere $30 million from the 2010 level, or 0.6%, to $4.874 billion.

That number is part of the final continuing resolution to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year on 30 September. The agreement, reached Friday between President Barack Obama and leaders of the Democratic Senate and Republican House of Representatives, will be voted on later this week. And its expected passage will reverse the fortunes of an agency that 2 months ago was looking at an 18% cut to its Office of Science budget, compliments of the House.

The restored number "was a total shock," says Persis Drell, director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. "We'd been hoping against hope that the cut would be less than 10%," she says. "None of us in dreamed that we wouldn't be down at least five or 6%."

The surprising budget compromise means that DOE can keep running its synchrotron x-ray sources, neutron sources, nanotech facilities, and other "user facilities," which support tens of thousands of researchers from various agencies. "We won't have to shut down our facilities," says Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. "We may have to adjust how we operate them, but we won't have to shut them down." Argonne is home to the Advanced Photon Source x-ray synchrotron, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, and the Center for Nanoscale Materials.

With the relatively modest cut, officials at the Office of Science's national labs won't have to make the huge layoffs they'd been planning. However, the final budget is still 4.8% short of the $5.121 billion originally requested by the Obama Administration for 2011. So some belt-tightening will be required, and neither Isaacs nor Drell would guarantee there will be no layoffs. "Until I see what's actually allocated to the lab, I can't say that," Drell says.

The news comes as a particular relief to researchers supported by DOE's biological and environmental research (BER) program, one of six programs in the Office of Science. The original continuing resolution would have cut funding for BER from $558 million in fiscal year 2010 to $302 million in 2011. And coming halfway through the current fiscal year in which researchers were spending at 2010 levels, it would have effectively left the program with nothing for the rest of the year. "My overall reaction is relief," says David Randall, a climate modeler at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a member of DOE's biological and environmental research advisory committee. "But I'm still concerned for the future."

In particular, DOE-funded scientists are worried about the office's 2012 budget request, now before Congress. "It's been an educational year," Isaacs says. "We learned that the argument [about the value of basic research] is still on the table and that we still have to make that argument."

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