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Shannon Bond and Mallika Rao/Medill

A look inside the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory


Is the future of American science at risk?

by Mallika Rao and Shannon Bond
March 12, 2008


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Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne is just one research facility feeling the crunch from budget cuts at the Department of Energy.

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Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Diagram of a scanning X-ray microscope at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source. Scientists use these instruments to study the molecular structure of various materials in great detail.

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Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists from across the U.S. and the world come to Argonne to conduct experiments with the APS.

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Shannon Bond/Medill

The reduction in funding for high energy physics hit Fermilab particularly hard. Funding increased slightly for other programs such as basic energy sciences and nuclear physics, benefiting multi-purpose labs such as Argonne. But specific projects within those areas went unfunded. Scientists hope that funding for science will increase across the board in 2009.

What Got Cut?

At Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont 

Intense Pulsed Neutron Source (IPNS)

What is it?
IPNS closed in January. Scientists relied on the facility to generate neutrons and used them as probes to study the arrangement and motion of atoms in liquids and solids, including magnetic materials, high-temperature superconductors and polymers.

Why is it important? The fruits of IPNS research influence computer technology, energy technology and other industrial applications.

What happened? IPNS was scheduled to close in about two years but the 2008 budget cuts forced the facility to close immediately. As a result, half the IPNS staff was laid off in January.

Advanced Photon Source (APS)

What is it? Argonne’s premier research facility, APS produces very “bright” or high-energy X-rays.

Why is it important? Scientists use these X-rays to investigate the structure and function of all kinds of materials. Research at the facility encompasses a wide range of fields, from drug development to energy technology to nanoscale materials.

What happened? The funding cuts required Argonne to reduce the number of weeks the APS will run this year, limiting the number of experiments that can be performed.

At Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia

NOvA Experiment

What is it? NOvA is one of many Fermilab projects investigating neutrinos, fundamental subatomic particles that are extremely difficult to detect. The experiment will study oscillations between different “flavors,” or types, of neutrinos.

Why is it important? Neutrinos are integral to our understanding of the fundamental structure of matter and the nature of the universe.

What happened? The project has been delayed this year because it received no funding in the fiscal year 2008 budget.

International Linear Collider (ILC)

What is it? The ILC is a proposed particle accelerator that will crash beams of electrons into their anti-matter counterparts, positrons, at near the speed of light. The project is a collaboration between more than 100 universities and labs around the world.

Why is it important? The collider will allow researchers to investigate fundamental questions about dark matter, dark energy and other scientific mysteries. Dark matter is matter that doesn't emit light.

What happened? Fermilab’s ILC research and development budget was cut by 75 percent for fiscal year 2008, effectively shutting down the project for the rest of the year. Fermilab Director Pier Oddone said he worries the cuts may jeopardize the lab’s status as a potential site for the collider – and, more seriously, tarnish the U.S. reputation as a committed partner in major international projects.


Sources: Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science


Recent funding cuts made by Congress are already reducing operations at Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, two Chicago area labs at the heart of national research.

But the cuts may also limit America’s contributions to science in years to come, according to the directors of both labs. Argonne is a multi-purpose research lab while Fermilab searches for the fundamental building blocks of matter.

Scientific discoveries often take decades to enter mainstream use, explained Argonne director Robert Rosner. 

“The laser was first developed in 1960,” he said.  “If you ask yourself, ‘When did it become industrially important?’ The answer is the 1990s.” 

The squeeze at Argonne and Fermilab today could mean some future technologies will be developed elsewhere – possibly outside the United States.

“It’s not that they won’t exist,” Rosner said.  “Somebody else will have made investments and they’ll have those things.”

European and Asian nations, including Japan, China, India and Spain, are all likely contestants.

European countries are “much better at consistent funding” than the U.S., Rosner said, potentially making them more promising destinations for young scientists looking for research opportunities. 

Financial security is necessary for scientists to do their jobs, said Argonne material scientist Goran Karapetrov.  “To do basic science you need some stability and you need to focus on the problem.  If you focus on your job and where to move next, that focus is lost.  The substance is lost.”

Part of the problem is the inability of scientists to effectively promote their cause to the public, Karapetrov said.  “Scientists are in general bad marketing people. There is some contradiction, you know, if you want to do science and you want to market.  Sometimes it is difficult to do both.”

But because elected officials allocate funding, scientists depend on public support of their work in order to effect change. 

In countries like China and Japan, citizens understand the importance of scientific advancement because they have seen within their lifetime how drastically it has transformed the landscape, Karapetrov said. 

“When you land at the airport in Shanghai, it takes you eight minutes to get downtown,” he said.  “They have trains that are levitated on a magnet. They can go 200 miles an hour.”

Those trains use superconducting magnets to reduce friction and operate at such high speeds, Karapetrov said, explaining the very technology he works on at Argonne. 

European and Asian countries may soon produce workers who compete with the American scientific community, rather than seek to join it, as they have in the past.

 “We’ve attracted a lot of talent to the U.S. because we were tackling these very profound questions,” said Fermilab director Pier Oddone.  “If we stop doing this, I think that talent will go elsewhere.”

Argonne and Fermilab both draw heavily on scientists from abroad – workers at Argonne alone represent 60 different countries.  Oddone and Rosner are themselves immigrants, Oddone from Peru and Rosner from Germany.

They said the decrease in funding this year is not reflective of the government’s stance on science, however. 

“It’s a very strange thing because there is no disagreement politically,” Oddone said, calling Congress “incredibly supportive of science and technology.”

The problem was more likely one of necessity, according to Rosner. 

“I think there were concerns about getting it done,” he said, referring to the omnibus budget bill Congress passed late last year.  “When you’re negotiating and you’re down to the wire, you might well imagine that the pressures of the moment completely overwhelm your ability to do things in detail.”

Because Congress chose to pass a consolidated budget rather than approve President Bush’s request for the Department of Energy, which funds both labs, some fields garnered less attention, Rosner said. One of those fields was high energy physics – basic research into matter and radiation at elementary levels.

“That was probably most surprising,” he said.  “This is a cut aimed at an entire discipline of science.”

Argonne encompasses fields of research that include nanotechnology, energy alternatives and biosciences. The lab receives funding from several U.S. Department of Energy science programs as well as other agencies including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The cut to the high energy physics budget affected only one area of research at Argonne while some disciplines such as supercomputing actually saw boosts in funding.

At Fermilab, however, high energy physics is the main area of study.  The lab is funded entirely through the Department of Energy’s high energy physics program, so the cuts resulted in a $52 million – or 14 percent – drop in the lab’s anticipated budget of $372 million for the current fiscal year. 

“The whole lab is under a cloud,” Oddone said.  “They took projects that were aimed at the future of the lab and they effectively completely unfunded them.”

Currently, Fermilab’s main facility, the Tevatron, is the world’s highest-energy particle accelerator. Particles accelerated to near light speed collide and scientists study the basic components of matter in the resulting debris. The machine is scheduled to be shut down in two years, after the next-generation Large Hadron Collider opens at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland.

Fermilab expected funding for the proposed International Linear Collider to keep it on the cutting edge after the Tevatron closes, Oddone said. The budget cut off funding for the linear collider project, though Oddone said he hopes that support will be restored in the future.

The cuts are already affecting the current state of research at Fermilab. To avoid immediate layoffs, employees are required to take unpaid leave each month so that, at any given time, 10 percent of the staff isn’t working.  The arrangement is equivalent to shutting the lab down for a month in terms of the money it is saving this year, Oddone said.

These temporary reductions to the lab’s $200 million payroll mean less commerce for Batavia and surrounding areas, he said.  “I’m sure people are not going out and spending a lot of money right now.” 

Local firms are also losing out on contracts associated with the $50 million in capital investments the lab hoped to make but now cannot.

Though scaling back has allowed Fermilab to continue to function, the solution is temporary.  If funding is not restored next year, layoffs are inevitable, Oddone said.

Argonne has already laid off about 30 workers, most of them at the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source (see sidebar), a facility the lab was forced to close ahead of schedule.

“That’s roughly speaking about half of the people working in that area,” Rosner said.  “There are others but they’re small in number compared to that.”

Argonne has attempted to avoid more layoffs by reducing the operating hours of some facilities including its largest machine, the Advanced Photon Source. The APS is the most powerful X-ray source in the Western Hemisphere.

“Every single American pharmaceutical corporation has a presence here and they do research at this lab,” Rosner said.  “It would not take a huge stretch of imagination to think that the American pharmaceutical industry could well decide that their research and development is at risk because we’re reducing operating hours, and therefore they’re going to go to Europe.”

If that kind of global switch happens, he said, the American scientific community would feel the pain from this year’s budget cuts for decades.