APS News

Stimulus is Both Short and Long Term Investment for National Labs

In addition to supporting local economies, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in February, provided the country’s national labs funding to bolster their fundamental physics research programs. The Department of Energy allotted billions of dollars in recovery money to the different labs for research, construction projects, and environmental cleanup.

Despite the infusion of funds, labs are being very conservative about hiring new personnel, opting instead to contract for overdue construction projects, and building improvements. The recovery act was designed to quickly inject billions of dollars of capital into the economy, with the requirement that it all be disbursed by 2011. After that, budgets throughout the government, including the national labs, are expected to return to more or less current levels.

Pier Oddone, director of Fermilab, said that hiring more permanent staff would lead to a budget crisis after the stimulus ended and funding returns to normal. Instead, using the stimulus to buy needed tools eases the requirements on the laboratory’s future budgets while at the same time benefitting today’s economy.

“The stimulus funding was always represented by the government as a stimulus fund; a onetime thing,” said Oddone, “The bulk of the funding…the vast majority is really being put out to industry, so there is no great big shock when the funding stops.”

Basic physics research stands to get a big boost from stimulus package. Steve Gourlay, director of the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, highlighted the construction of two long-postponed, large scale experiments. Ground will soon be broken on the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) and work has already begun on the Neutralized Drift Compression Experiment Facility (NDCX-II), both relying heavily on stimulus funding.

“They’ve been in the books for a while,” Gourlay said, “Both of  these projects have been waiting on the order of years.”

When completed, BELLA will use one of the world’s most powerful lasers to accelerate electrons up to 10 GeV over a distance of about a meter. NDCX-II represents the next step in fusion research by probing plasmas at high energy densities. The construction of this new induction linear accelerator, slated for completion in March of 2012, will be funded entirely using stimulus funding.

“The fusion program was looking at a dead end until this came along,” Gourlay said, “Funding has been flat for many years”

Though labs are hiring few permanent employees, many are expanding their workforce by taking on more postdoctoral researchers. These positions are typically set up for two to three years, with the possibility of being renewed up to five. Argonne National Lab’s Division of Mathematics and Computer Science is taking on additional post-docs to work in their supercomputing division.

“In a way…the post-docs could stand to benefit the most from the recovery because they’re getting a career out of it,” said Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne, “These are people whose careers are being made with the stimulus funds.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said he wants to put greater emphasis on the department’s fundamental research sections, hoping that discoveries in these areas will spur innovation in energy technology. Investments at the national labs from the recovery act put them in a strong position to implement the secretary’s vision.

“It’s been a great opportunity for us,” said Gourlay, “There’s going to be a payoff for many years to come.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos