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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 lifeblood on 6/2/2008 9:12:09 AM , Rating: 3
I believe that the Dems are the majority in congress.

This statement, while true, fails to grasp the workings of our government. The Democrats have a majority in the house but not in the senate and the president is a Republican. If they send a budget to the president and he doesn't sign it they lack the votes for an override. That results in a stalemate that hurts everyone. They have very limited options.

My big complaint is that the writers of the constitution envisioned congress as being the counter weight to the president. The republicans in the congress have been anything but, giving the president everything he wants and looking the other way on anything questionable he does. You saw it during the Clinton years when the Democrats flocked to the presidents defense even though he had lied and cheated, and you see it now with the Republicans.

Where are the statesman our forefathers envisioned? In a country as great as ours I expect much better from our government. Naive, I know.

RE: $$$
By straycat74 on 6/2/2008 9:28:43 AM , Rating: 2
Then why is a Democrat the majority leader then?

(This is old news, but you seem to need to catch up)

The other independent (not Leiberman) is a socialist, which puts him well inside the Democratic party.

RE: $$$
By straycat74 on 6/2/2008 1:27:37 PM , Rating: 3
The republicans in the congress have been anything but, giving the president everything he wants and looking the other way on anything questionable he does.

On the contrary, in "reaching across the isle", Bush did not veto anything that the Democrat congress put forth (only vetoes were for war spending), hence the increase in social spending. To bad the Democrats don't realize they have had a center, and maybe even a center-slightly left president.

Republican and conservative values will reduce spending and government bloat, but this president has behaved like a democrat, more so than a republican.

RE: $$$
By Ringold on 6/2/2008 3:00:24 PM , Rating: 2
You're on the right track lifeblood looking at the constitution, but pointed the finger in the wrong direction, I think.

The constitution is fine, and was fine, until 1860. Northern liberals and southern conservatives fiercely disagreed on the power of the federal government and independence of states. In a pre-1860 world where we tried to strictly follow the constitution, Bush wouldn't likely have the power he does, and Congress wouldn't yield near the influence it does on the common man.

However, we know how the Civil War went. Northern, big-government liberals pervailed, and Lincoln established a strong tradition of entirely ignoring the constitution in the process. The Bill of Rights may as well not have existed, but to draw a parallel with Iraq, it was considered audacious that Lincoln dare raise an army to defend DC without first getting Congress to rubber stamp it. Roosevelt picked up the same ball and ran with it; he made campaign promises that no American boy would die on foreign soil (playing to the isolationist mood) while simultaneously planning how to covertly mobilize for war.

Today, the constitution is a cute formality, for both parties. We could follow it the way the framers intended, but Scalia was interviewed on some left-wing show I came across. The interviewer clearly thought he was a neanderthal for holding an originalist view of the Constitution; she couldn't seem to believe that someone could not buy in to the "living constitution" view, where the meaning of the constitution changes to be whatever the unwashed masses want it to mean on the fly.

RE: $$$
By lifeblood on 6/3/2008 9:04:18 AM , Rating: 2
Actually, that fight goes back to the very beginning of our country. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton believed in a strong central (federal) government, while people like Thomas Jefferson believed in a limited central government and a very literal reading of the constitution. Obviously the federalists eventually won.

As with all things, this had both good and bad results. However, I think the end analysis will show it was good for us in the long term. Had the federalists not eventually won we would probably still have Jim Crow laws. And if we can't get a president and congress to agree on a unified policy, how do you expect 51 states (plus assorted territories) to agree on anything? And if you think federal politicians are corrupt, you should take a look at state politics. Local politics are even worse.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997
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