Posted: January 19, 2008

Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory saw budgets cut

(Nanowerk News) The Chicago Tribune has an article on how Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory were damaged in the budget fight between President Bush and Congress:
Argonne National Laboratory arguably is where the hot new nanotechnology industries were born and without Fermilab, the MRI machines that are common in hospitals across the nation might not have been possible.
Together, Illinois' two national laboratories are local economic powerhouses that employ almost 5,000 people and spend more than $800 million a year to operate. Nationally, they are part of the scientific and technical foundation upon which the United States economy has prospered for more than 60 years.
But just before Christmas, Fermi and Argonne were gravely injured by the budget hammered out by a feuding President Bush and Congress. Argonne faces the closing of one facility, downtime at another and an uncertain number of layoffs. Fermi was hit even harder, facing 200 immediate layoffs, unpaid days off for remaining workers and the prospect of being closed altogether sometime in the future.
America's high-tech industrial facilities and jobs are likely to go abroad because U.S. companies can no longer count on support from the government, a major corporate chairman warned Congress.
This harsh fate was totally unforeseen. Only last summer the president and Congress passed a law endorsing the notion that America's economic competitiveness rests squarely upon the back of basic research financed by federal dollars. A bipartisan majority pledged to raise appropriations for national labs and academic researchers.
The sudden turnabout was rooted in political infighting between the two houses of Congress, as well as President Bush's line in the sand for Democratic lawmakers.
"This wasn't done to punish Fermilab or physics," said Pier Oddone, Fermilab's director. But lack of intent doesn't lessen the damage from a $52 million budget cut, which stops all planning for a new physics machine that Fermilab hopes to land. Failing to win that machine puts Fermilab on the road to closing down as its current facility, the Tevatron, will soon become obsolete.
Competitiveness lost
The budget cuts that enraged and demoralized lab employees also caught the attention of America's corporate technocracy leadership, which is concerned that this country is already letting its long-standing leadership in science innovation slip away.
Noting that Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill "to support industries of the 19th Century," Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp., asked in letters to congressional leaders "isn't it time we pull our political leadership together to start supporting the industries of the 21st Century?"
Looking at budget cuts for science, Barrett warned that "industry is listening carefully to your deliberations. If there is no government support to these areas that will dictate our competitiveness for the next century, then we might as well just accept that and make our investments elsewhere."
Argonne's advanced photon source provides dozens of superbright X-ray beams that enable researchers to see how chemistry unfolds, how pathogens work, helping pharmaceutical scientists design new drugs. The X-ray beams also explore how smaller electronic circuitry may work.
Faced with budget cuts, the photon source must reduce its operations by 20 percent, said Robert Rosner, Argonne's director, which means researchers will wait longer to do their experiments.
Academic scientists will just have to wait, but folks from Intel, Abbott Laboratories or Motorola who have commercial competition to consider may go elsewhere, said Michael Lubell, public affairs director for the American Physical Society.
U.S. capacity at X-ray facilities such as Argonne's is already tight, while similar facilities built abroad have capacity and welcome American researchers, he said.
"In the electronics industry, they have quick turnaround times for new products," Lubell said. "If a researcher has to wait six months to get the beam time he needs in this country, he's tempted to go abroad.
"Once your R&D goes offshore, your manufacturing will follow. Cutting back Argonne's operation only compounds the problem."
Argonne's relationship to industry goes back a long way. Early work at the lab on nanotechnology led to the founding in 1989 of Nanophase Technologies Corp., now based in Romeoville, among the country's first commercial nanotech concerns.
Source: Chicago Tribune (Jon Van)
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