Fermilab Researchers Could Face Furloughs

Cutting remarks. William Brinkman (right) tells a U.S. House of Representatives spending panel about the pain the automatic cuts known as sequestration will cause for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which he heads. Representati

D. Malakoff/Science

The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration could mean furloughs of up to a week for some 2000 employees at the only U.S. lab dedicated to particle physics. The cancellation of several research grant programs and delays in upgrades to major research facilities are also on the horizon, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science told a congressional committee this morning.

"We face a unique and challenging time during this period of intense budget uncertainty," said DOE's William Brinkman in testimony presented to an appropriations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. "[T]here will be impacts to our programs, facilities and construction projects … but also the everyday lives of the researchers, institutions, and businesses we support."

Brinkman manages DOE's major basic research arm, which funnels some $4.8 billion annually to six science programs, including those that provide the lion's share of the money used to support the nation's fusion, particle physics, and materials science efforts. The automatic sequester that went into force on 1 March requires DOE to trim the Office of Science's overall spending by about 5%—or about $215 million—by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. The cuts will come out of a budget already frozen at 2012 levels, Brinkman noted, creating a "double punch."

The science office started pinching pennies many months ago to prepare for tight budgets, Brinkman said. Still, DOE officials began planning how to deal with sequestration just about a month ago, he told Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the Office of Science's budget.

"For a long time, we were told not to worry about this," Brinkman said.

"You should worry," replied Frelinghuysen, drawing chuckles from a few dozen staffers and audience members.

He is now, Brinkman assured lawmakers. "Sequestration greatly endangers the scope of our scientific program," he said, listing a number of specific impacts "should sequestration stay in effect" for the rest of the fiscal year. The hits could include:

  • One-week furloughs for the roughly 2000 people who work at DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, along with reduced runtime for its particle accelerator. Other DOE laboratories could feel similar pain, Brinkman said. "It appears that there definitely will be furloughs at several laboratories." Asked about the furloughs, Fermilab spokesperson Katie Yurkewicz wrote in an e-mail that lab officials "won't take any actions that will affect our staff or our scientific mission until Congress passes a final budget for this fiscal year and we know what that means for our laboratory's budget. We have been preparing for the possibility of sequestration, holding back on spending since the start of the fiscal year and planning for various possible budgetary scenarios. We are focusing on actions that minimize the impact of further budget cuts on our scientific mission and on our 1,750 employees. A week-long furlough is one of many options on the table. If our final budget makes it necessary to implement a week-long furlough, it would be implemented in a rolling manner so that we can continue to operate the laboratory throughout the furlough period. The effects of sequestration could be particularly harsh for Fermilab because we have already adjusted to a cut of about 8% proposed by the President in his FY13 Budget Request. We took a number of difficult and sometimes painful steps last year, including layoffs, to adjust to that expected lower budget."
  • Possible delays in the delivery of U.S.-funded hardware to ITER, the international fusion reactor under construction in France. U.S. funding for ITER was due to ramp up this year, and any reduction "will impact our ability to meet US hardware delivery dates," Brinkman's written testimony stated.
  • Cancellation of a second request for proposals for DOE's recently initiated FastForward scientific computing initiative, aimed at developing new supercomputers.
  • Delays in computing research grants to universities, affecting as many as 60 graduate students.
  • Cost increases in upgrading the Linac Coherent Light Source II at the SLAC research center in Menlo Park, California. Current spending rules are preventing DOE from entering into construction contracts, potentially increasing costs and construction timelines.
  • A reduction in "early operations" at the new National Synchrotron Light Source II at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, scheduled to become fully operational in 2015.
  • Cancellation of three funding opportunities sponsored by the Office of Science's Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program, with the loss of up to 25 new grants.
  • Early cancellation of existing multiyear grants won by BER researchers at universities and national laboratories.
  • Reduced runtime at several facilities important to nuclear physicists, including the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven laboratory and the accelerator at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia.

To avoid some of these impacts, Brinkman said that his office will ask Congress for permission to shift—or "reprogram"—money from lower- to higher-priority programs. It is not clear, however, how much leeway exists under the sequester rules, which require that cuts should be made on an across-the-board basis.

Still, some lawmakers on the panel said they wanted to help. "We are on your side," Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) told Brinkman. Frelinghuysen said his staff members would be looking at reprogramming requests.

In the meantime, Brinkman said budget woes have already forced DOE to shelve—at least for the time being—proposals to begin work on several new facilities that would cost $1 billion or more. "Some things we have decided we aren't doing," he said.

A proposed next-generation synchrotron light source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, for example, has been "pushed out of the picture." And a new target station at the Spallation Neutron Source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee "is also the off the table as far as we are concerned," said Brinkman, whose office is currently working on a plan that will set priorities for new and existing facilities over the next decade.

DOE's science woes come even as other nations, including China, are threatening U.S. preeminence in many scientific fields, Brinkman noted. "While we are facing dramatic cuts to scientific funding due to sequestration at home, other countries around the world are challenging our scientific leadership in essentially all the scientific disciplines that we steward," he said. "Stable and predictable funding is critical to the proper execution of our mission."

Perhaps the only thing that is predictable during the current budget deadlock in Washington, however, is uncertainty over how much money scientists will have to work with in 2013.

*Update 12:50 p.m., 5 March: This item has been updated to include a statement from Fermilab spokesperson Katie Yurkewicz.