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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: Priorities
By Reclaimer77 on 6/2/2008 5:10:09 PM , Rating: 2
All good points. I'd add the cultural stigma against being a "nerd". Why do we idolize sports stars over scientists. You have whole generations of kids who dream of being a basketball/football/baseball/sports star. While the scientists and engineers are practically considered social rejects.

Gee thats a tough one. One path leads to riches, fame, fortune and hot women. The other path leads to going to school for 12 years only to end up at a physics labs thats threatening to be shut down. With very little to show for it besides personal satisfaction. And thats not even a given. The stigma of the typical engineer or scientist being overworked, underpaid and seldom laid sure isn't helping matters.

How much time and energy do people waste on what star did what, which team won which game, and who's dating whom? If even a small percentage of that energy was directed at sites like this we might have more interest in funding places like the above.

Not sure where your going with this besides some extremely idealist point. So you mean if I don't watch football this season I'll suddenly pick up nuclear physics and thermodynamics and help fund labs like this one ? Seriously, what are you even talking about ? DAMN those people trying to find entertainment !!! They should be funding the sciences !!!

Since you like pointing fingers. Why are you wasting all this " time and energy " posting on the Internet ? Huh ? Go out there and fund some sciences you slacker !!!

I'm sorry but the scientists and engineers of the world have done a lot more good for society than every sports hero and pop star combined.

True. So whats your point ?

I guess I would point out that without the huge tax revenue that professional sporting teams and the movie industry bring into the economy, the sciences budget would be a lot smaller...but nah. Never mind.

RE: Priorities
By Ringold on 6/2/2008 7:38:16 PM , Rating: 2
The other path leads to going to school for 12 years only to end up at a physics labs thats threatening to be shut down. With very little to show for it besides personal satisfaction. And thats not even a given. The stigma of the typical engineer or scientist being overworked, underpaid and seldom laid sure isn't helping matters.

Well, okay. That's if you go the full PhD route and then choose to live on government cheese, a life of academics.

People that get science degrees and engineering degrees and then go and get real jobs in the private sector make more money than any other type of college graduate. Yes, lawyers can make a pretty penny, and some doctors do well, but in both fields wage growth hasn't been keeping up with inflation, while engineers earnings have been surging.

That makes the lack of engineers almost puzzling, because asides from the elite few who become sports stars, the majority of engineers are really the ones in America bringing home the bacon! If a hot little education major mama wants to snag a husband, she'd be best off hanging around the engineering departments of campus rather then just about anywhere else.

At least, if I was a hoe, that'd be my hunting ground.

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson
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