January 26, 2007

Labs brace for budget freeze

University-managed Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory are facing a federal funding shortfall that could severely hamper the progress of major projects, lead to employee layoffs, and prompt a month-long shutdown.

Unless the funding gap is bridged, Argonne expects to lay off roughly 5 percent of its workforce and freeze the start of a highly anticipated $72 million nanotechnology research center.

Fermilab is considering a month-long shutdown which would lessen the blow of the projected $21 million budget cut. Fermilab would also be forced to delay a new neutrino project. The disruption may also slow Fermilab’s bid to house the International Linear Collider.

A congressional resolution passed in December has kept Department of Energy (DOE) funding capped at the 2006 budget level. The new Democratic-led Congress has said it will continue flat funding through the remainder of the fiscal year, leaving Argonne and Fermilab with debilitating budget shortfalls.

Robert Rosner, director of Argonne, is working to prevent the budget cut. In an e-mail to Argonne employees, he said, “We are working very hard to make sure that the consequences of a reduced budget level are understood at all government levels and to make the strongest case to redress the situation and avert these consequences.”

The first steps of the contingency plan developed by Argonne include a hiring freeze and the freeze of wages and salaries at the 2006 level. The contingency plan will also consider “the intermittent shutdown of Argonne user facilities; postponing the planned upgrade at the Advanced Photon Source; and possible staff layoffs,” Rosner said.

Argonne receives approximately 70 percent of its budget from the DOE and other governmental sources that will be affected by the flat funding.

Members of the Senate are currently drumming up support to increase funding for the DOE Office of Science. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) are circulating a letter that details the possible consequences of flat funding.

“Freezing Office of Science funding at the fiscal year 2006 level would have a significant adverse impact, such as: closure of national user facilities; increased construction costs of new facilities; layoffs of hundreds of scientists, engineers, and support staff; a sharp reduction of university programs; and jeopardizing U.S. commitments to domestic industry and international partners,” reads an excerpt from the letter.

“We must commit to doubling federal funding for basic research and development in the physical sciences and modernize and expand the research and development tax credit,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a January 19 national address. Leaders at the U of C are lobbying Pelosi directly in hopes of pushing through a funding increase, a Crain’s Chicago Business article reported on January 23.