Budget cuts threaten Fermilab's viability

Published 20 December 2007

Fermilab’s 2008 budget will be 17 percent smaller than the 2007 budget; 200 of its 1,900 scientists will be laid off next month; NOνA’s neutrino experiment, Tevatron collider, other programs to be halted; one scientist says: “Effectively, Fermilab is put on a glide-path to shut down after 2011”

Those who worry about the fact that the United States is falling behind China and Europe in scientific research and science education — and anyone who cares about the U.S. welfare and national security should be deeply worried about these pernicious trends — should now be even more worried. Here is why: The last U.S. lab dedicated to particle physics will be forced to lay off about 200 of its 1,900 scientists next month as its 2008 budget will be nearly 17 percent smaller than expected. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, will also be forced to stop development work on all future accelerator-based projects, a move that threatens the viability of the forty-year-old Department of Energy (DOE) lab. The budget decisions, part of a $550 billion omnibus spending package which Congress approved this week, call into question the U.S. commitment to particle physics as a whole, says Fermilab director Pier Oddone. “There’s a policy question for the government and for Congress,” he says. “Do we want to stay in particle physics or not?”

Science’s Adrian Cho writes (sub req.) that the omnibus bill, passed nearly three months into the 2008 fiscal year, funds every federal agency outside the Defense Department. Bowing to a demand by President George Bush to trim domestic spending, the Democratic Congress sliced $22 billion from an earlier spending blueprint. That step meant steep cuts across the government, including a proposed double-digit boost for DOE’s $3.8 billion Office of Science that funds Fermilab. As a result, the 8 percent increase that the lab was expecting for 2008 suddenly turned into a 10 percent cut from current levels. That $62 million turnaround (from $372 million to $310 million) specifically targets projects that are key to Fermilab’s future. One is a neutrino experiment known as NOνA, which would have been the lab’s flagship experiment after its Tevatron collider shuts down. Researchers had expected $36 million in funding to start assembling the experiment this year; instead, Congress flat-lined the budget for the program, for which Fermilab spent $16 million last year. Congress also cut funding for the proposed International Linear Collider (ILC) — a thirty-kilometer-long multibillion-dollar behemoth that U.S. researchers hope someday to build at Fermilab. Congress reduced funding for ILC research and development from a requested $60 million to $15 million. It also cut funding for research on superconducting accelerator technology from a projected $24 million to $5 million. Fermilab’s share of those two pots shrunk accordingly, from an expected $47 million to $15 million. As the fiscal year is a quarter over, physicists have already spent nearly that much, so work will stop immediately, Oddone says. “These cuts rain down devastation on all these future programs,” he says.

The cuts may also affect Fermilab’s flagship Tevatron collider, which researchers hope will cough up the long-sought Higgs boson before it is nabbed by the more powerful Large Hadron Collider. The LHC will swing into action next summer at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. To meet the new budget, employees will have to take unpaid leave, although Oddone says he hopes a “rolling furlough” program will allow him to keep the machine running. The cuts undermine Fermilab’s plan to move into neutrino research in the next several years and then, before the end of the next decade, play a leading role in the ILC. Some observers say that the cuts threaten the lab’s very existence. “Effectively, Fermilab is put on a glide-path to shut down after 2011,” says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. Barry Barish, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and leader of the ILC Global Design Effort, says that project is in better shape, despite a 75 percent cut in the U.S. contribution to its budget, than is Fermilab. “Their problem dwarfs ours,” Barish says. “Fermilab is in deep, deep, deep trouble.”