Downsizing the downsizing at Fermilab

By John Conway | May 27, 2008 6:41 pm

After Congress slashed the budget for high energy physics just before Christmas last year, well into the 2008 fiscal year, Fermilab had to scramble to figure out how to cope with a huge shortfall in its budget.

The response was twofold. Firstly, all employees would be subject to “furloughs” in which all salaried employees would take one week off without pay in every two-month period. This has made it hard to get, say, five Fermilab people in a meeting together the past few months, and of course was a big burden on the families involved.

The second aspect was layoffs. At one point it seemed that as many as two hundred people, from all parts of the lab, might lose their jobs. But now it appears that it will be 140 people, since a number of people chose retirement.

There was happy news this past weekend: the furloughs, at least, will end! Apparently an anonymous donor gave a large gift to the University of Chicago, to help Fermilab. (The University of Chicago and the Universities Research Association, through an organization called the Fermi Research Alliance, now contract with the federal government to run the lab.) This gift will mean an end to the furloughs.

This is very good news for Fermilab, which has continued to operate the Tevatron at record-setting luminosities, and the CDF and D0 experiments are collecting huge quantities of high quality data with mature, well-understood detectors. The two experiments each now have more than thirty times the data sample than that used to discover the top quark in the mid-1990s, and hopes for a major discovery are high – if it’s going to happen this next year is crucial, before the LHC starts operating.

The LHC is nearing completion, and should be ready in July to begin circulating the first tenuous protons around the complex. Later in the year, perhaps October, the first attempts could be made to accelerate the protons to 5 TeV energy and collide them. This will provide the first shakedown runs of the big experiments ATLAS, CMS, ALICE, and LHC-b. But the first serious physics data will be in 2009.

As for the layoffs, well, as far as I know they will move ahead. By all portents we will have a continuing resolution from Congress again this year, and with a new administration it could be some time before we know the state of funding for the field in the next fiscal year.

Now I know lots of CV readers will comment that these layoffs are no worse than the fate many in the private sector suffer routinely, as corporate fortunes wax and wane. I can also tell you that the taxpayers are getting an incredible bargain – the field makes every dollar count, and the people who do this work, some of the most brilliant minds I have had the privilege to know, are totally dedicated to getting the science out; they aren’t in it for the money, to be sure. We are challenging our prevailing notions about the most fundamental features of our world: matter, energy, space, and time. What lies ahead is truly unknown, and where the discoveries will lead us is only a guess. But just look at the past, how our knowledge of the most fundamental has given us the incredible technology we now enjoy. I think Congress, and the governments of the world, would do well to double down on this one…

Anyway, to that anonymous donor, all I can say is this: you rock! Thank you!

  • Ellipsis

    To those interested in donating to support the nation’s main particle and fundamental physics laboratory, contact the Fermi Research Alliance (holder of the operating contract for Fermilab) at

    or call (630) 840-3211

    Building an endowment, like those at universities, that exists as a buffer for these sorts of crises, is a needed goal and can only be done with the help of the public.

  • Ellipsis

    I forgot to add that as FRA is incoroprated as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, all donations are tax-deductible.

  • Ryan

    Congress would’ve done well to double-down on a lot of things. Fermilab is feeling the crunch because EVERYONE is feeling the crunch. The “crisis” is at Fermilab and elsewhere.

    At this juncture, we (scientists and otherwise) should be considering what place pure physics research investment has in a scenario with more pressing needs (which may become increasingly manifest in short order).

    My guess is that basic research in physics should and will take a back seat to attempts to mitigate this impending depression. This is an unwelcome reality.

  • James Nightshade

    The cuts are not due to budgetary pressure. Remember, just last week Congress passed a $289 billion farm bill. And we all know about how much money and lives they give Bush to spend in the War in Iraq.

    The reason for the cuts is much more simple. Physical scientists have consistently failed to effectively lobby Congress and make a strong case for increased — or even continued — funding. If the scientific community imagines that the cuts will be reversed in a few years without any effort on their part, they will be disappointed.

  • Ed Gerstner

    So the US should curtail investment in basic physics research, which has lead directly to the creation of such esoteric and largely useless things as the laser, the silicon transistor and the internet, so that it can concentrate on working out how to improve its economic situation? More future economic dominance for Asia then.

  • Xenophage

    Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression.

    Government oversight: Immortality has no impetus to improve.

  • Mike

    One response to those who say that such layoffs are no worse than those suffered in the private sector, is to argue that academic salaries are ‘adjusted’ to reflect the job security of the profession. That is, academics are willing to accept smaller salaries than would be competitive in the private sector in part because they get to do what they want, but also in part because they trust in job security — in a sense this is equivalent to paying a premium for unemployment insurance. When a lab lays off employees, it violates this trust — these employees are probably typically less prepared for layoffs than those in the private sector. In turn one expects that when funding increases again, new employees will demand higher salaries, to compensate for the increased risk relative, say, employment at a university.

    This thinking is why my blood boils when I read articles critical of the generous pension plans that government workers (especially teachers) enjoy. In my reckoning it is no coincidence that government workers (especially teachers) suffer a huge pay discrepancy when compared to similarly skilled professions in the private sector — job security and generous pensions is how the government has chosen to recruit employees for lower annual pay. As times become more uncertain, those in the private sector will become more envious of this situation. But really, there is no injustice here — government workers have simply made a wise investment with their human capital. My guess is if their private-sector peers lived off the same income as teachers, and invested the rest, they’d be in an even better position when it came time for retirement.

  • Professor R

    To european eyes, it seems bananas to scale back on Fermilab at this particular moment, when CERN is offline and the Tevatron is enjoying record luminosity.

    Right now, the Tevatron enjoys the top spot – it could be a while before the US achieves this dominance again. It seems to me someone’s value-for-money calculation did not include the issue of timing – perhaps to the relief of some European Higgs searchers!…

  • Dmitry

    “the people who do this work, some of the most brilliant minds I have had the privilege to know, are totally dedicated to getting the science out; they aren’t in it for the money”

    That’s for sure. Wondering who the donor is.

  • Arun

    The donation to UoC and Fermilab directed towards particle physics is great news in these dark times. Thank you whoever u are.

  • eric gisse

    does the united states even have a plan for the next generation of particle accelerators? everything local seems to be either being cut back [fermilab] or scuttled [SSC], with international commitments to other high energy physics research being abandoned [ITER – not collider physics, but in the area] all together.

    i honestly fail to understand why the united states would abandon / toss to the winds its prominence in science.

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