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Big trouble for big science

A worker crouches inside the wiring for the BaBar experiment at the Stanford Linear

Accelerator Center. SLAC has announced scores of new layoffs due to budget cuts.

Physicists are still scratching their heads and shaking their fists two weeks after Congress unexpectedly slashed support for big science projects, including the multibillion-dollar ITER fusion-power experiment and the yet-to-be-designed International Linear Collider. The Energy Department is still trying to figure out what to do, but hundreds of layoffs already have been announced - and more may be on the horizon, unless lawmakers provide relief. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama is among those who say they're riding to the rescue.

The cuts came in the omnibus spending bill patched together by Congress and signed by President Bush just before Christmas. Among the institutions hit hardest were Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois; and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, in California.

Today, SLAC Director Persis Drell announced that the lab would reduce its workforce by 15 percent, or 225 full-time positions. About 125 of those layoffs are due to Congress' decision to cut anticipated spending in the current fiscal year by 20 percent, from $120 million to about $95 million. Another 100 are due to a previously planned restructuring of the lab's research program.

The lab's current main particle physics experiment, known as the B-factory or BaBar, will be shut down in March, six months early. In 2004, the BaBar team made headlines for a study that helps explain why matter dominates over antimatter in the universe (which is a good thing for us made-of-matter creatures).

Research and development aimed at paving the way for the International Linear Collider has stopped, at SLAC as well as at Fermilab. This is because the budget for the ILC project was basically cut back to the amount that's been spent since the current fiscal year began in October.

Other projects will have to be scaled back at SLAC, but on the plus side, the lab's big next-generation project, the Linac Coherent Light Source, is fully funded and on tract to begin operations in late 2009.

Meanwhile, the Intense Pulse Neutron Source will be shut down at Argonne, resulting in layoffs, the Chicago Tribune quoted Argonne Director Robert Rosner as saying. Operations at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, the nation's brightest X-ray machine, will be reduced as well.

At Fermilab, there's been talk of up to 200 layoffs - due to the work stoppage on International Linear Collider R&D as well as a cutoff of funds to develop the NOvA neutrino detection experiment.

Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson told me today that the layoff plan is still up in the air. "We want to avoid it as much as we can," she said. "We still don't exactly know if and how many people may have to go."

On the plus side, Fermilab's Tevatron experiment still has the go-ahead to continue until at least September 2009, Jackson said. There's still the option of extending operations in the giant accelerator ring until early 2010 if there's a chance of finding exciting new physics, such as firm evidence of the elusive Higgs boson.

Congress came down particularly hard on the U.S. ITER project, which is run from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Lawmakers nearly "zeroed out" the $160 million budgeted for support of what's expected to be a $13 billion demonstration fusion-power project in France - and forbade the Energy Department from shifting money around to fill the gap. Only $10.7 million was left in the budget for ITER-related research.

Gary Johnson, an Oak Ridge veteran who is now a deputy director-general at ITER, said the international partners were in a "wait-and-see mode" - basically waiting to see what the Energy Department is going to do. "For us, it certainly makes our life more complicated and difficult," Johnson told me from ITER's headquarters in France.

Over the next decade, the United States and ITER's six other partners (the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia) will provide most of their multibillion-dollar contributions in the form of in-kind goods. The United States, for example, will be responsible for the guts of the magnetic confinement device for the experimental reactor and a lot of the cryogenic plumbing.

For the time being, however, most of the U.S. contribution is in the form of cold, hard cash - "primarily paying the salaries" of U.S. scientists and engineers involved in the ITER planning process, Johnson said. For now, ITER can afford to be patient, but if the United States fails to contribute to the project, "the involvement of the U.S. would be minimal," he said.

"Eventually, it would have an effect on my salary ... but right now, that's not a worry of mine," Johnson said.

So what's the Energy Department going to do about all this? Department spokesman Jeff Sherwood said the discussions are continuing - and for now, this statement is as much as can be said:

"The omnibus budget legislation's cuts in the FY 08 DOE high energy physics program and the ITER fusion project are disappointing. DOE is reviewing the budget situation and its implications and remains committed to our stewardship of the U.S. high energy physics research program. The international ITER project's mission is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of clean fusion energy. The Department of Energy is assessing options for the U.S. government to continue to meet its commitment to this important international research program. Fusion energy remains an important component of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, given fusion's potential to become an attractive long-range option for the U.S. clean energy portfolio."

Meanwhile, Illinois' two Democratic senators - Obama as well as Dick Durbin - have joined forces with Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., to call for increased funding for high-energy physics in the next fiscal year. In their statement, the lawmakers noted that the American Institute of Physics included two revelations from Fermilab on their top-10 list for 2007. (The institute and its allies have since expressed their disappointment over Congress' cuts.)

"We must work together to restore funding in basic physics research to maintain America's role as the innovator in technology, to retain our leading scientific institutions and their skilled workforces, and to provide opportunities for future scientists," the lawmakers said.

Fermilab's Jackson said Durbin's office was taking the lead in bringing together members of Congress "to ensure that this particular funding disaster doesn't get carried forward." Obama is also supportive, although he's not been able to devote full attention to the issue in the past couple of weeks.

"We heard he had some other things going on," Jackson joked.

The federal spending proposal for fiscal year 2009 is due to be sent to Congress in less than a month, and that will mark merely the opening shot in the election-year battle of the budget. The recent resurgence in congressional earmarks was thought to be one of the reasons why physics took it in the shorts this time around. That's always a danger, as long as big science isn't seen as that big of a priority.

"Quick fixes are very tempting," Jackson told me, "but really we need to address the overall commitment of our country to particle physics. Are we going to do this, or aren't we?"

Before you answer that question, consider where we'd be today without the fruits of physics. Then add your comments below.

Dispatches from the Big Science Tour: