Shrinking lab. Director Thom Mason (left) with Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz during a June visit to the Tennessee lab.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Trim Staff by as Much as 11%

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee today announced a plan to pare up to 475 positions from its staff of 4500 researchers, technicians, and support personnel. Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) lab hope to meet the target through voluntary buyouts, and there are no immediate plans for layoffs. The staff reduction is the second in 3 years and would leave the lab with nearly 1000 fewer workers than it had in 2010.

Oak Ridge is one of 10 national labs run by DOE’s Office of Science, which this year took a 5% hit, to $4.632 billion, as part of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. The reduction, required by the failure of policymakers to abide by the terms of a 2011 law designed to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade, reduced the lab’s budget this year by $100 million, to $1.5 billion. The voluntary buyouts are intended to prepare the lab for a second round of automatic cuts that will occur in 2014 unless Congress agrees on another approach to reducing federal spending, say Oak Ridge Director Thom Mason.

Oak Ridge is a multipurpose lab with strengths in materials science, advance scientific computing, biofuels, and nuclear engineering. It hosts the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source and the High-Flux Isotope Reactor, also a neutron source, which are used to study materials. It is home to the Titan supercomputer, which can be used to simulate systems as diverse as the climate and the core of a nuclear reactor. Oak Ridge also serves as the main office for the U.S. team working on the international fusion project ITER, which is under construction in Cadarache, France.

Mason says that earlier staff cuts have made the lab more efficient and allowed it to lower the fees charged researchers from universities and industry to use its facilities. But they have also reduced the amount of research the lab can perform, a disturbing trend that Mason says will accelerate if DOE levies additional cuts. “We’ve reached the point,” Mason says, “where people are telling me, ‘I can’t cut anymore because I’ve only got one expert in each of these different areas.’ ”

The buyouts at Oak Ridge may be a sign of things to come across the DOE laboratory system. Directors of other DOE labs tell ScienceInsider that they are also considering reducing staff levels but have not reached a final decision.

*Clarification, 26 September, 11:48 a.m.: The story has been revised to reflect the fact that Oak Ridge officials hope the number of staff reductions will turn out to be smaller than 475.