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March 2006 (Volume 15, Number 3)
Last fall Congress approved a $34 million cut in the Department of Energy’s nuclear physics budget, a reduction of 8.4% from FY05. These cuts mainly affect the nation’s two major experimental nuclear physics facilities, RHIC at Brookhaven National Lab and Jefferson Lab’s CEBAF.
RHIC has recently been saved by a private donation, while JLab still faces cuts in run time and possible layoffs.
Under the final FY06 budget, the DOE would have funded 12 weeks of operation at RHIC during 2006. As many as 100 Brookhaven staff could have lost their jobs. Increases in electricity costs late last year would have forced even more reductions in operating time. In December Brookhaven officials decided it was not worth running the collider for such a short time, and instead decided to minimize layoffs and shut the machine down for the year.
However, in January the lab was saved by a private donation of $13 million. The donation was organized by James Simons, a member of the Board of Directors of Brookhaven Science Associates, which runs the lab. Simons is a mathematician and president of Renaissance Technologies, an extremely successful investment management company.
The donation will allow RHIC to run for 20 weeks this year. No experiments will be cancelled, and no layoffs will occur, said Brookhaven Director Praveen Chaudhari. “There is not another facility like RHIC in the world. It’s been doing a set of unique experiments,” he said.
Chaudhari said he expects this donation to be a one-time occurrence, and does not believe the private funding will affect government support for basic research. “Private money has always gone into science, and that has not stopped the government from supporting it,” he said. “You can’t get away without government support. Nuclear physics has to be supported by the US government in this county.”
Chaudhari is optimistic about the future of funding for science, especially after hearing President Bush’s State of the Union address, in which he called for doubling funding for basic physical science research. “I was greatly heartened. Clearly we will see an increase in the budget in the Office of Science.”
At Jefferson Lab, the budget was cut by $7.8 million, from nearly $87 million for FY05 to $79 million in FY06. Some experiments are being delayed by decreased run time. As many as 40 layoffs are still possible at JLab, but lab officials have not yet decided what specific cuts will be made.
David Armstrong, a physicist at the College of William and Mary who does research at Jefferson Lab, said, “Even a relatively short period of poor funding delays important science. But more important is what it does to the pipeline.” Recent PhDs and postdocs often react to a poor funding situation by leaving the field, he said.
Armstrong described his outlook about the future budget for nuclear physics as “hopeful, but very concerned.”
Gordon Cates, a physicist at the University of Virginia and chair of the Jlab Scientific Users Group, said he expects the budget situation for physics to improve soon. “We’re getting close to a turnaround. There’s growing recognition of the importance of physical science. I do think we’re seeing the pendulum swing the other way,” said Cates. However, he cautions, that positive outlook is not a certainty. “I don’t think it’s a done deal. The outlook is quite positive, though I think everyone is waiting for the follow through.”
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