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Federal Research Funding Cut

Financial support for a major international fusion project is one of many casualties.
January 18, 2008

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.

Cooled fusion: The United States has stopped funding research for an international fusion-reactor project called ITER.

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.

Another important project, a proposed demonstration of nuclear fusion–called ITER–was slated to receive $160 million in federal funding this year; instead, it received no funding. ITER will consist of a 500-megawatt fusion reactor, to be built in the South of France, with which researchers will attempt to demonstrate that fusion can be a practical source of electricity. If all goes well, results of the project will be used to design the first commercial fusion power plants. Fusion projects in general have been delayed in part because of intermittent funding, says Ian Hutchinson, the head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. The ITER project is taking up where research left off in the early 1990s, the last time funding dropped off. If funding had been constant, Hutchinson says, “we could have been at this stage 10 years ago.” He calls the current cuts a “complete disaster” in terms of the message it conveys to the international community. “It’s completely reversing ourselves from what we’ve been saying the last four years,” he says, given that United States officials have publicly supported the project.

The ITER project could go on without support from the United States, but it will move forward more slowly, Hutchinson says, and when the facility is complete, researchers in this country won’t have timely access to the results. He hopes that in the coming year, “cooler heads will prevail” and the funding for ITER will be restored.

The appropriations bill is not bad news across the board for research and development, but it does favor short-term development, which often comes at the expense of long-term research. For example, the DOE overall received an increase in funding compared with both last year and the president’s request. But the Office of Science–the basic research arm of the agency–saw nearly a half-billion-dollar cut compared with appropriations bills in Congress earlier in the year. In the DOE, some programs that were slated to be cut in the president’s budget will continue to receive funding, such as research on geothermal and hydroelectric energy. Eliminating these proposed cuts added to the overall budget and led to cuts elsewhere.

The cuts in research funding have researchers and organizations such as the American Physical Society calling for Congress to push through new funding this year. But many, including Drell, are preparing for more difficult times ahead: they’re anticipating similar budget shortcomings next year.

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