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It was supposed to be a year bringing sharp increases in federal funding for physical-sciences research. Instead, as a result of the final appropriations bill signed a few weeks ago by Congress, fiscal year 2008 (the federal fiscal year runs October 1 to September 30) brought cuts that will cause hundreds of researchers to lose their jobs, and it’s putting the future of two important international projects in jeopardy, including one to make a large-scale fusion demonstration facility.

For most of 2007, as Congress and the Bush administration debated the federal budget, support was strong from both parties for significantly increasing funding for three federal agencies that support the lion’s share of basic research in the physical sciences: the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science. Indeed, the president’s proposed budget included increased funding for these agencies, as part of a plan to double investment in physical-sciences research over the next 10 years. And early appropriations bills met these targets. But veto threats and one actual veto related to a cap on domestic spending imposed by President Bush kept these bills from becoming law.

Instead, a catch-all appropriations bill was passed in late December, with last-minute cuts that eliminated not only the proposed increases to these agencies, but also funding for some programs within these agencies. The cuts caught researchers by surprise just before the holidays and sent directors of at least two national labs scrambling to find ways to deal with the unexpected shortfalls. As a result of the cuts, hundreds of researchers at Fermilab, in Batavia, IL, and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), in Menlo Park, CA, will be laid off.

What’s more, two international projects will receive no funding at all for the remainder of the fiscal year. One endeavor, the International Linear Collider project, is being designed to answer some fundamental questions about the universe, such as those concerning the nature of dark matter. While funding could be restored in the future, layoffs will mean that the labs involved could lose key technical staff, says Persis Drell, the director of SLAC. She says that a particle collider at the lab will also have to shut down due to lack of funds, which will mean that the lab must back out of some international commitments.

“It pains me greatly that at a time when particle physics needs to be ever more international, the political process in the U.S. has resulted in real damage to the relationships with our international partners,” Drell said in a speech to the researchers and staff at her lab.

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Credit: ITER and Technology Review

Tagged: Business, DOE, fusion

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