Monday, January 8, 2007

Where are those $#@% funds?

Here's the other side of the equation. While we're hearing of the exciting scientific developments in tracking down the Higgs boson, we're also hearing this:

Congressional Budget Delay Stymies Scientific Research

This article is very disconcerting. A representative quote: “The consequences for American science will be disastrous,” said Michael S. Lubell, a senior official of the American Physical Society, the world’s largest group of physicists. “The message to young scientists and industry leaders, alike, will be, ‘Look outside the U.S. if you want to succeed.’ ”

Essentially what has happened is that multiple spending bills were "left hanging" by the departing Republican majority. Some Republicans didn't want to finish them because by not doing so it doesn't allow certain spending increases to go into effect, and therefore keeps the bottom line down. It's like you're the CEO of a company and you decide to give raises, but when the time comes around you don't actually sign them into effect because you don't want to increase your spending. Apparently the incoming Democrats have stated they are not going to try to finish these bills. Instead, they're just going to keep everything under the current budget until fall.

Remember this post from one year ago? Where I was describing how Rob and Robin were clapping and cheering the new budget for 2007, in which they were to get some additional money? Well, that's the "raise" the CEO just decided not to sign into effect. But it is actually wrong to think of it as a "raise." As the article says, "Last year, Congress passed just 2 of 11 spending bills — for the military and domestic security — and froze all other federal spending at 2006 levels. Factoring in inflation, the budgets translate into reductions of about 3 percent to 4 percent for most fields of science and engineering."

Fermilab is not the only one to be suffering. Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York was severely affected. The article states it was already operating on charitable contributions (!) and might shut down entirely. Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee might have to delay opening for a year. The Stanford Linear Accelerator, research at universities across the US funded by the National Science Foundation, an oceaneanic observatory, a global polar research program, and even missions at NASA would all be affected. John Conway at UCDavis said that they can't even hire graduate students because there is no money for teaching assistantships.

The article specifically points out Fermilab: "Another potential victim is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, where a four-mile-long collider investigates the building blocks of matter. Its director, Piermaria Oddone, said the laboratory would close for a month as most of the staff of 4,200 are sent home."

Ulp. Closing up shop for a month?? I got on the (email) horn with Rob Roser and John Conway. John said that Pier Odonne, Fermilab's director, vividly spelled out the consequences to Fermilab in a meeting a couple of days ago (again, sometimes I wish we would get some notification of these things... we always seem to hear about them after the fact. But they're much more important to us that we are to them). It might be, of course, that Pier is talking loudly to get lawmakers' attention. Will the lab be shut down? We'll see. Monica and I have been talking about dusting off the old video camera and making another trip down to Fermilab...

Which brings us to the next post...


Bill Rexroad said...

Jeff, it isn't clear to me whether you mean that FermiLab is still getting money (the 2006 budget amount) or they have been cut off completely. Why would they shut down if still getting money?

Bill Rexroad
Hutchinson, Kansas

Clayton said...

Hi, Bill ---

Thanks for the question. I'll see if I can make it more clear: They are still getting money, but at the 2006 amount. According to Rob Roser, one of the spokespeople for the lab, they've already had to do some downsizing and have had to ask for early retirements and haven't hired anyone new due to budget tightening.

But the big picture is that their costs go up every year. Just to keep pace with inflation, rising costs, etc. they need (like everyone else) a 3 - 4 % increase. This doesn't allow for any new science or experiments, it just allows them to continue at the status quo year to year. They've been getting that, but just barely. (The first budget cut we outlined two years ago meant that this continuing funding would basically end for the tevatron in 2009. More on that below)

Last year we outlined a bit of good news: in addition to the general 3 - 4% increase, Fermilab looked to get an additional small bump beyond just the basic funding. They were excited to actually have some money to spend on new science and projects.

But now, this latest news means that not only is this new bump not going to happen after all, they're not even going to get the normal 3 - 4% increase. Their costs are going up, but their income is staying the same. It's like all your bills going up, but you don't get a raise at work so your paycheck stays the same. If you were already operating on a razor-thin budget, this could be devastating. Like Rob said, "You can see that when you are operating on the margin the way science is right now -- a cut of 3-4% which doesn't sound like too much is actually devastating."

As for why they are shutting down completely, as we found out in Feb of 05, Fermilab gets a lot of its funding from one massive multi-year experiment to the next. If they can make a good case, they'll get a promise for hundreds of millions spread out over the course of a few years to work on one big experiment. They sort of "pass the baton" from one experiment to the next, and this allows the whole place to keep running. Unfortunately, in Feb 05, the next big experiment that would have kept the lab running got canceled out of the blue. It caught everyone off guard, and meant that when the funding for the current big experiment runs out (in 09) there is not another runner to take the baton. The whole thing ends. Everyone was stunned by it, and that's the big event in our story.

So, they have until 2009 (some speculate now it might happen even in 2008) to keep running. That means they have until 2009 (or 08) to find the Higgs, the particle we've been following... Can they make it? Check out the latest news article I posted today on the blog...

Thanks, Bill --- hope this helps!