March 6, 2007

Funding boost spells relief for labs

The U.S. Senate recently increased Department of Energy (DOE) funding for scientific research, assuaging fears of layoffs and shutdowns at the University-managed Argonne National Labs and Fermilab.

The bill boosts funding by $200 million to the Office of Science, which supports DOE research. Congress had previously announced its intention to freeze research spending at the 2006 level.

The decision was met with widespread relief at U of C laboratories. “People at the labs are a lot happier now than they were with the original continuing resolution…. Neither lab is rolling in money, but neither lab is now talking about shutdowns or layoffs,” said Donald Levy, University vice president of research and CEO of Argonne.

The labs had indicated that frozen funding could have caused a month-long shutdown at Fermilab. Argonne administrators considered layoffs and freezing wages.

Argonne officials said the budget increase came thanks to the Democratic majority and lobbying efforts undertaken by universities and science organizations.

The Illinois congressional delegation, which campaigned to increase science budgets in Congress, was encouraged by a letter of protest signed by the presidents of six research universities in the state.

“One of the truly bipartisan ideas in a very partisan Congress is the idea that science in general, and the physical sciences in particular, are in need of significantly increased funding,” Levy said.

However, concerns about long-term funding issues remain.

Although President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) promises to double DOE and National Science Foundation budgets over the next 10 years, administrators have still expressed caution.

“The bill that was actually signed was good news in that it did contain an increase and did indicate continuing congressional support for the ACI,” Levy said.

“Nonetheless, the increase wasn’t as large as one might have hoped,” he said. “If this year’s rather meager increase is the end of it, then we have a problem.”