Coping With the Crunch

Facing unexpected budget shortfalls, federal physics labs across the country are cutting back operations and hoping for a break in the next funding cycle.
January 16, 2008

Despite promises from President Bush and a bipartisan commitment from Congress to significantly boost federal support for the physical sciences, the agency funding the lion's share of that research received only a slight increase over last year, disappointing officials at national laboratories who recently found themselves announcing a slew of layoffs and prematurely halting long-term projects.

Since the omnibus appropriations bill last month severely scaled back funding increases requested by the president and endorsed by both houses of Congress, the nation's physics laboratories are feeling the pinch. According to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Department of Energy's Office of Science walked away with a 5.3 percent increase in funding for 2008 over fiscal year 2007, to $3.7 billion -- still a far cry from the 15- and 18-percent increases approved last year by the House and Senate, respectively. According to the AAAS, the increase shrinks to 1.4 percent when earmarks -- noncompetitive awards made directly to favored projects by members of Congress -- are factored out of the legislation.

Behind the nearly flat numbers, however, were more severe cuts to high-energy and nuclear physics, fusion sciences and basic energy sciences that caught by surprise several high-profile national labs -- many operated by research universities -- that rely largely on federal funding.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, facing a 20-percent funding decrease over last year, will have to cut 225 jobs, or 15 percent of its work force, and shut down at least one major research project. In Illinois, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which is jointly run by the University of Chicago and a nonprofit research association, will have to lay off 200 employees and ask the remaining 1,740 to take two days of unpaid leave each month. Similar budget crunches have afflicted the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, administered by Cornell University, and Argonne National Laboratory, operated by a partnership including the University of Chicago.

The cuts could also jeopardize the United States' bid to locate the International Linear Collider, being developed jointly by physicists around the world, at Fermilab instead of Switzerland or Japan.

Even though they're bearing the brunt of the cuts to science funding, the federal labs are hopeful that Congress can muster the promised increases in the coming year; President Bush's budget for fiscal year 2009 is due next month. The 2008 appropriations process was only finalized in late December -- for the year beginning October 1, 2007 -- after Democrats backed down from a veto threat and reduced spending to mostly adhere to the president's requested budget caps.

The fact that spending was on track for a major increase until nearly the last minute explains a lot of the hand-wringing among the centers now unexpectedly faced with fewer resources and smaller staffs. Although it wasn't backed up by funding this year, Congress and the president theoretically remain committed, since the 2007 passage of the America COMPETES Act, to essentially double spending on physical sciences over the next decade. Should laboratories continue to hope, despite a possible recession hovering over the economy and numerous competing budgetary priorities, for the promised boost in support? The answer depends on a related question: Was this year an anomaly or a sign of future funding trends?

"We don’t look at it as, 'Gee, the country has given up on particle physics,' " said Judy Jackson, the communication director at Fermilab. "We think it was really an unintended consequence of the funding process, where at the very last minute, because of the budget impasse between Congress and the administration, big cuts needed to be made in a big hurry."

Already, the laboratory is looking to its other main sources of revenue: the state and private donors.

“We believe this is a blip, and we are also extremely pleased at the level of support that we’ve found among our Illinois legislators in particular, from friends of science and basic science around the country, and we’re very encouraged by the pledges” Fermilab has received, she added.

Because of federal requirements and the late passage of this year's budget, Jackson said, laying off staff isn't always the easiest way of conserving funds in a budget shortfall. For example, Fermilab has to give 60 days' advance notice, provide severance pay and reimburse the state for unemployment insurance -- all weighed against savings that are “not nearly enough to make up the $52 million deficit,” she said.

Beyond hoping for a reprieve in the next fiscal year, however, labs may have to start thinking about longer-term plans. "I’m sure they’re hoping to get some of this money back, but in the meantime, how do you keep people if you can’t pay them?” said Albert H. Teich, the director of science and policy programs at the AAAS.

Some observers, meanwhile, believe that the budget cuts illustrate the declining influence of the physical sciences as compared to biological sciences. From 1998 to 2003, for example, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled. "Relatively, over time, the physical sciences haven’t done as well as the life sciences," said Paula E. Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who has studied science policy.

Stephan and others described the last cycle of funding increases for the life sciences that led research universities to rapidly expand facilities and infrastructure. "It's incredible how much concrete" was poured into buildings whose utility depended entirely on a sustained level of funding, she said. Institutions were “almost acting as if they thought that would continue forever," she said, instead of planning for five-year funding periods; "one would really hope that they would learn something” if the promised boost does arrive for the physical sciences as well.

Conversely, there's also the fear that research centers in the life sciences won't take their cue from the shortfalls now faced by the physical sciences. "When they get a hit, it becomes really obvious,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, referring to the elaborate infrastructure required by physics research.

Ehrenberg said that, beyond state appropriations, laboratories may start to seek funding from their supporting institutions' endowments, creating the possibility that sustaining research could directly conflict with elite universities' recent drive to boost financial aid for lower- and middle-class students. “We really do have to worry that higher education as a whole may not be able, in the years ahead, to fully afford the scientific research infrastructure which they’ve been trying to build up,” he said.

He added: “If I’m right, that’s going to have very sad implications for our society because our rate of growth in technological innovation depends so heavily on the research that’s done at universities.”


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