APS News

High‑Energy Labs Reel Under Budget Cuts

By Ernie Tretkoff

Last year both the Administration and Congress had shown support for increasing spending on physical science; the bipartisan America COMPETES bill authorized significant increases for basic science. But in December, Congress, scrambling to pass an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008 that would meet the President’s spending target, cut billions of dollars, including substantial cuts for science.

The impact on science was very broad. At the DOE Office of Science, fusion energy sciences was 33% below the President's request (including the cancellation of the promised $160 million US contribution to ITER, an international fusion program); basic energy sciences was 15.3% below; and nuclear physics 8.2% below.

The budget for high energy physics was slashed 12%, from the $782 million requested to $688 million. The cuts will result in layoffs of hundreds of workers at both SLAC and Fermilab. At SLAC, the B-factory experiment will end in March, seven months before its planned shutdown.  

In the final appropriations, Fermilab’s budget for FY08 was cut from the $372 million requested to $320 million. This is less than the FY07 budget of $342 million.

The cuts will result in layoffs of about 200 of the lab’s approximately 2000 staff members, and remaining staff will subject to a “rolling furlough,” requiring them to take two to three days of unpaid leave per month. Work on development for future projects, such as the ILC, has been stopped at Fermilab.

Fermilab Director Pier Oddone called the budget tremendously disruptive. He said it pained him to have implement layoffs and furloughs, but says they are necessary to keep the lab running. “I get paid to optimize the program, not to protect every last job,” he said. He said the most serious impact of the cuts was the effect on the lab’s future, as projects that would be central to Fermilab’s future program have had funding cut off. “We’re not getting ready for what happens 2-3 years down the line,” said Oddone.  “That’s the biggest impact.”

Fermilab, the nation’s only laboratory devoted solely to high energy physics, is especially vulnerable to budget cuts, Oddone pointed out, but he does not plan to change the lab’s mission. Oddone said he is waiting for the release of the President’s FY09 budget in early February before making further decisions.

Several Fermilab scientists said they felt that Congress had overlooked the serious consequences for physics in their haste to pass the enormous omnibus appropriations bill. They said that this budget sends a bad message to young people, who might be deterred from going into physics, and suggests that the US is not a reliable partner for large international endeavors.

The $60 million expected for FY08 for ILC development was reduced to $15 million, but since the cuts were made in December, three months into the 2008 fiscal year, that money has already been spent. “It’s effectively stopped all work,” said Fermilab’s ILC program director Robert Kephart.

The budget situation puts Fermilab in jeopardy as the site for the ILC. “If we don’t reform the budget process, the world will want to build the ILC elsewhere,” said Oddone.

“It makes the US look like a poor partner,” for international collaboration, said Kephart.

The United Kingdom has also withdrawn its promised contribution to the ILC.

Large particle physics experiments such as the ILC need to be planned years in advance. “The damage from this kind of budget process is really severe,” he said.

Funding has also been eliminated for an experiment called NOvA, which would have become the main neutrino program at Fermilab and was about to begin construction. NOvA was designed to search for muon neutrino to electron neutrino oscillations, a key to unanswered questions in neutrino physics. About $36 million had been expected for the project. “It’s a difficult situation. You can’t just take a project like this and stop now and start later,” said Gary Feldman, a spokesman for NOvA. It is unclear how long NOvA will be delayed. “Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Mark Messier, another physicist working on NOvA. “The message it sends to graduate students is terrible,” he said.

While work on future projects has stopped, Fermilab’s Tevatron will continue to run until 2009 as planned.  Spokesmen for the CDF and DZero, Fermilab’s two main detector collaborations, said the Tevatron could still do exciting science. They pointed to many recent accomplishments of the Tevatron, including precision measurements of the mass of the top quark and W and Z bosons, discovery of some new particles and detection of some rare processes such as the production of single top quarks. CDF spokesman Jacobo Konigsberg of the University of Florida said that the Higgs particle mass is probably within the energy range accessible to the Tevatron, and finding the Higgs is a matter of collecting enough data before the machine shuts down. There is also the possibility of finding new physics. “Unless you search, you cannot find,” said Fermilab scientist and DZero spokesman Dmitri Denisov.

Although they are excited about the prospect of new discoveries from the Tevatron, Fermilab scientists worried about the future of US particle physics. Young people will see the uncertainty in funding and will not be attracted to the field, and people affected by layoffs generally do not return to the field. “If people see no future, they will try to look for something else” said Denisov.

These budget cuts could be detrimental not only to high energy physics, but to the broader economy, because these accelerators advance technology, and students who work on these projects gain a wide range of valuable skills, including communications skills, computing skills and experience with electronics and cutting edge technology. “There are very few endeavors as varied and rich as high-energy physics,” said Robert Roser, a Fermilab scientist and CDF spokesman.

Fermilab is also continuing its contributions to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Dan Green, Fermilab’s spokesman for CMS, one of the LHC detectors, said he was excited about work on CMS, much of which can be done in the United States. The CMS detectors are being tested, and are on schedule to be ready before the LHC begins operation. “LHC is our only frontier device now,” said Green. Many US scientists are participating in that collaboration, and the US remains committed to the project. “We have been good international partners,” he said, but the recent budget cuts are worrisome.

While the future is uncertain, Fermilab officials and scientists say they are hopeful that this year’s budget is a one-time setback from which the lab could recover. But some are less optimistic about future funding for physics. SLAC Director Persis Drell told an all hands meeting at SLAC in January, “While the bipartisan enthusiasm for the physical sciences appears to be strong and will likely continue, we cannot view the current budget challenge as a temporary setback. I do not believe that the physical science budgets will grow as quickly as has been hoped for…I believe that nationally we will need to adjust to a smaller base program going forward.”

Officials in towns near Fermilab have passed resolutions urging Congress to restore funding to the lab, and Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama and Congresswoman Judy Biggert have sent letters to Jim Nussle, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, asking for increased funding for high energy physics in FY09.

“I really feel grateful for all the support we’re getting,” said Fermilab Deputy Director Young-Kee Kim. She stressed the need for scientists to communicate with the public and with lawmakers so they understand the value of basic science.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff