January 11, 2008

Fermilab braces for budget cuts

A last-minute decision by Congress to reduce spending in high-energy physics will result in layoffs and research cuts at Fermilab, a physics laboratory that shares many of its scientists with the University of Chicago.

The cuts, which come three months into the fiscal year and total 12 percent of the proposed budget, will have “a severe impact,” said Young-Kee Kim, University professor of physics and Fermilab’s deputy director.

Two hundred of Fermilab’s 1,940 employees will be laid off beginning in February, and remaining employees will be required to take two unpaid days off per month—effectively a 10-percent pay cut.

Kim said that funding and staff would be reassigned in order to keep core experiments running, while work on several peripheral and upcoming experiments would be cancelled.

President George Bush’s proposed budget for 2008 allocated $782 million to high-energy physics, an increase from $752 million in 2007. The money was initially approved in committees, but later overruns in the full budget resulted in the physics budget taking a cut down to $688 million.

Fermilab will receive $320 million, a reduction both from the proposed $372 million for 2008 and from $342 million received in 2007.

Construction on a new experiment involving neutrinos, chargeless subatomic particles, will be halted, as will Fermilab’s research and development work on a proposed 20-mile-long particle accelerator.

The accelerator, known as the International Linear Collider (ILC), is being designed by an international coalition of physicists, and is slated to be located in Switzerland, Japan, or at Fermilab.

Kim said that budget cut would significantly lower the chance of the ILC being built at Fermilab.

Tevatron, Fermilab’s particle accelerator and primary experiment, will be kept running, as well as a separate experiment involving neutrinos.

Kim said that the budget cuts violated several international agreements that the U.S. had entered into to fund multibillion-dollar projects such as the ILC.

“We don’t have a very good record so far as a viable international partner” in large-scale physics experiments, she said. “Having this reliable, constant support is very, very crucial and that’s the major issue with the U.S.”

Henry Frisch, University professor of physics who works with Fermilab, said that the cuts were a “flaming disaster” for American science.

“At some point we’re just not going to be in the running, and that’s happening very rapidly,” Frisch said. “At some point you turn into a second-rate-science country.”

Other American laboratories researching high-energy physics, including fellow U of C affiliate Argonne National Laboratory, will also be affected. Argonne announced in a January press release that it would terminate work on its neutron-scattering facility, the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source (IPNS), due to the budget cuts.

Fermilab, the only American national laboratory to focus exclusively on high-energy physics, is operated jointly by the U of C and the Universities Research Association under contract from the Department of Energy. It is located 30 miles west of Hyde Park in Batavia, Illinois.