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Fermilab Saved from Chopping Block--For Now

Spending bill solves current budget crisis. But what about next year?

A spending package signed into law last week by President Bush will provide enough cash to stave off the sacking of 90 employees at financially strapped Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill., the nation's leading particle physics lab.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Energy Jeffrey Kupfer told Fermilab it will receive a $29.5-million infusion, including $9.5 million for a key neutrino experiment planned to be completed in 2014.

But it remains to be seen whether Congress will dole out enough funds to keep the lab operating at its current capacity in fiscal year 2009.
 
The emergency spending measure was passed after Fermilab offered employee buyouts to ease a nearly six-month budget crunch triggered when lawmakers cut its funding by $20 million from the year before.

Judy Jackson, a lab spokesperson, said that 50 workers took the buyout two weeks ago, even though the Senate had passed the bill and the president had signaled he would sign it. But she notes that Fermilab would have had to ax another 90 employees if the new funds, part of $62.5 million forked over to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, had not been approved.

Despite a huge sense of relief, Jackson says there is still concern about next year's budget, although there are promising signs: The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget of $805 million for particle physics in FY 2009, nearly $117 million more than this year's allocation. "This is the most encouraging thing, because this is where we came to grief last year, in the House appropriations process," Jackson said.

The proposal may yet fizzle, however, as it did in December when Congress cut physics funding to meet a spending cap imposed by the president.

Fermilab became more vulnerable when its most vocal congressional booster, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.–Ill.), who represented Fermilab's Congressional district, stepped down in November.

Jackson said the lab is "very encouraged" by support from Illinois congressional Democrats, Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. Bill Foster, a former Fermilab physicist who won Hastert's seat in a special election in March.

Another positive sign, she says: the appropriations committee used language in its budget proposal from a May report by the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5), which laid out a strategy for the coming decade to ensure the U.S. "maintain[s] a leadership role in worldwide particle physics."

"We don't feel our challenges are over," Jackson said. "But we feel our challenges have fundamentally shifted."

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