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.