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Fermilab, aglow in the night, is a symbol of national pride and a face of U.S. particle physics. However, this lab, like a last old lion, is on the verge of death due to drastic underfunding.  (Source: Fred Ullrich/Fermilab )
Fermi earns a stay-of-execution thanks in part to a generous anonymous philanthropist

Particle physics is one of the most intriguing scientific fields, probing the nature of the very makeup of the universe itself.  However, over the last half decade, due to the growing economic crisis and various items such as war funding taking precedence in government budgets, the budget to help the U.S. stay leaders in the field of particle physics has been slipping.

The U.S. currently is down to only one remaining particle physics lab, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, associated with the University of Chicago and the lab was looking to be on the way out.  It had started in February rolling furlough program that slashed already scarce employee pay by 12.5 percent and forced them to take periodic unpaid leave. 

Now an anonymous donor has stepped in and donated $5M USD to the University of Chicago to try to alleviate these cuts and keep the lab open.  Even with the extremely generous donation the lab is still in trouble.  It plans to lay off 140 employees now, though it would have been an even larger number before the donation.  The donation has allowed the lab to offer voluntary layoffs before the involuntary ones start.

Fermilab Director Piermaria Oddone spoke of the gift stating, "This is very unusual.  It's not a building that carries a name. It's really a commitment to science and the nation and in particular to particle physics as a long-range important undertaking for our nation."

The good news has somewhat buoyed the sunken spirits of physicists at the lab.  Says Consolato Gattuso, an engineering physicist at the lab, "This is definitely a weight that has been lifted.  It gives us some light at the end of the tunnel."

Throughout the last five years, FermiLab's budget has been falling.  The U.S. Congress's last minute budget for 2008 cut FermiLab funding from $372 million requested by the Department of Energy (DOE) to $320 million, $22 million less than the lab had received in 2007.  The lab went into a state of crisis, forcing employees to take one week off unpaid every other month and work shorter hours.  Further, 200 of the lab's 1950 employees were scheduled to be cut.

The U.S. is in a particle physics competition of sorts with Europe to find the legendary Higgs boson particle first.  The cuts will allow Fermi's Tevatron Collider to stay operational, and continue the search.  Researchers remain optimistic that Fermi may find the particle before Europe's CERN lab turns on its more powerful Large Hadron Collider this summer.

Legally, Fermilab cannot officially accept the gift, but it will allow the University of Chicago to contract employees to work in the lab.  Over 50 employees have already left the lab, allowing it to scrape $1M USD in savings.

This is not the first time in recent years that the Congress has chronically underfunded the Department of Energy's physics research labs.  In 2006, Congress gave the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York so little money that it would have to shut down its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.   James Simons, a theoretical physicist and billionaire hedge-fund guru saved the Collider with a gift of $13M USD.

The officials at Fermi are extremely grateful for a gift, but fear it’s only prolonging the inevitable.  Brendan Casey, a Fermilab particle physicist states, "The grain of salt is that it really does nothing to change the uncertainty with regard to the future.  So there's some relief, but the underlying tension is still there."

The U.S. government may be forced to reevaluate its spending priorities as more experimental physics labs and other science programs go under and U.S. leadership in the sciences slips.  This would truly be an unfortunate loss for the country, most would agree.

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RE: $$$
By straycat74 on 6/2/2008 9:11:36 AM , Rating: 3
Then how did we get all of that money to drive an RC car on mars again, when we could have just sent this?

RE: $$$
By dickeywang on 6/2/2008 9:48:06 AM , Rating: 4
Sure, the Mars mission is probably the only science project that President Bush supports, but I think his motivation of doing that is purely political instead of scientific.

Now, Imaging your boss give you some very low budget, and then specifically tells you that one project, which would costs a large amount of $$$, should be done ASAP. What would happen to other projects that you have in hand? This is exactly the problem NASA is facing.

Years ago, I heard some physicists was making fun of the Mars mission by saying that "NASA is going to Mars, so we will never see them again".

RE: $$$
By masher2 on 6/2/2008 10:04:57 AM , Rating: 3
"Now, Imaging [sic] your boss give you some very low budget, and then specifically tells you that one project, which would costs a large amount of $$$, should be done ASAP. What would happen to other projects that you have in hand? This is exactly the problem NASA is facing.
Once again, NASA funding has increased considerably under Bush.

Under Clinton, NASA funding declined from $14.3B (1993) down to $13.4B (2000). Under Bush, it went from $13.4B up to $17.2B (2008), nearly a 30% increase.

RE: $$$
By Mitch101 on 6/2/08, Rating: -1
RE: $$$
By TheDoc9 on 6/2/2008 10:48:49 AM , Rating: 3
True that the gov. is terrible at budgeting because everyone wants there cut. But seriously, 320 million dollars is nothing to scoff at. The previous budget was 366, that's only 46 million more and you're telling me that they can't sacrifice a bit?

In any case, in discovering the Higgs Bosen we might shrink the planet into a small ultra dense particle about the size of a pea. /lexx

RE: $$$
By jcrash on 6/2/2008 11:17:01 AM , Rating: 2
In other words, not even enough to cover the increased in their gasoline costs under his administration.

Don't defend him. It is really, really a sad thing to see.

RE: $$$
By masher2 on 6/2/2008 11:22:35 AM , Rating: 1
NASA doesn't spend $4B on gasoline, sorry. And Bush attempted to raise NASA's budget even further. However, Congress complained bitterly over the cost of manned missions to the Moon and Mars, and thus those programs were not funded at appropriate levels.

RE: $$$
By Noya on 6/2/2008 12:25:18 PM , Rating: 4
Under Bush, it went from $13.4B up to $17.2B (2008), nearly a 30% increase.

I haven't looked up inflation numbers, but doesn't that barely cover the loss of USD value since Bush took office?

RE: $$$
By masher2 on 6/2/2008 1:29:25 PM , Rating: 3
> "I haven't looked up inflation numbers, but doesn't that barely cover the loss of USD value since Bush took office? "

If one converts to constant-dollars, the figure represents a 7% rise (i.e. NASA's budget rose 7% faster than inflation over Bush's term in office).

However, if one uses constant-dollars, the figures under Clinton are even more grim, as they represent a 25% decline over the same period.

RE: $$$
By BansheeX on 6/2/2008 1:34:38 PM , Rating: 5
Indeed, the dollar has lost about 40% of its value relative to other currencies in the past eight years.

It's sickening, however, to see disgust with Bush causing people to rationalize that this must mean voting Democrat this time is the correct decision. These two parties are practically the same now with regards to fiscal irresponsibility. Who started NAFTA managed trade? Who started the New Deal programs that are $60,000,000,000,000 underfunded over the next thirty years, even excluding pentagon waste? Who started Vietnam, Korea, Bosnia? All Democrat. Non-intervention is not a part of either platform, they simply take whichever side is politically profitable to get elected.

No, we badly need a libertarian-minded president with a record for cutting waste and ignoring lobbyists. And we're not going to get it, because the American people only try to think hard when it's too late and it hurts. They have the long-term memory of a drugged up lemming.

RE: $$$
By goku on 6/2/2008 2:25:37 PM , Rating: 2
Despite me being supportive of a libertarian president, there is a problem. A libertarian president would be cutting funding for NASA and projects such as this as well, even though it would actually benefit us all.

RE: $$$
By ChristopherO on 6/2/2008 3:01:38 PM , Rating: 3
Not true. Ayn Rand loved the space program.

RE: $$$
By Polynikes on 6/2/2008 7:05:11 PM , Rating: 2
I concur.

RE: $$$
By Ringold on 6/2/2008 2:43:35 PM , Rating: 2
I haven't looked up inflation numbers

Masher already responded, but I'd suggest you look at the technology component of the CPI. It has been deflationary. Extreme deflation. If NASA has been able to leverage that, I don't know, but thats an indictment of government itself rather than any party if it hasn't been able to.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates
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