Up to 45 Jobs at Jeff Lab Threatened

The research lab readies for federal budget cuts. It expects to lay off employees and slow work.

Federal budget cuts could force Jefferson Lab, a physics laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Energy, to eliminate up to 45 jobs and slow the pace of research on equipment that brings scientists worldwide to Newport News.

Congress cut funding for nuclear physics research in November by $34 million as it grappled with paying for the damage from Hurricane Katrina and the cost of the war in Iraq.

In turn, energy officials slashed Jefferson Lab's budget by $7.8 million, dropping it from nearly $87 million to $79 million -- the largest cut in the lab's 20-year history.

Christoph Leemann, lab director, will wait until President Bush releases his next proposed federal budget in February before deciding where cuts will occur. Cost-cutting moves could change based on whether the next budget restores or reduces funding.

"Overall, we're still optimistic," Leemann said.

Jefferson Lab, officially known as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has emerged as a showpiece in Hampton Roads' efforts to market itself as a prime place to locate high-tech businesses.

About 650 people work there.

Republican Sen. John Warner will lobby to get more money for Jefferson Lab in the next budget and will continue to talk with energy officials about shifting money from other programs to offset at least part of the existing cut, said spokesman John Ullyot.

"It's as difficult a fiscal environment as we have seen in recent memory here in Washington," Ullyot said. "But Senator Warner believes Jefferson Lab has an important story to tell."

Much of the lab's scientific work revolves around what's called the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, a massive complex of intricate equipment that allows scientists to study subatomic particles.

In 2003, Discover magazine listed a discovery made at the lab as one of the year's Top 10 science stories.

The accelerator will now operate 26 weeks a year instead of 32. Leemann said less operating time will slow the pace of some research and will make it tougher for new testing to win approval to use the accelerator. A backlog of work extends for four or five years.

"No experiment done here could be done anywhere else," Leemann said.

That's what most bothers Newport News Mayor Joe Frank.

He figured the lab's looming job losses, while hurtful to individuals, will do little to dampen the local economy. But he said the funding cuts could further erode interest among youths in math and science.

"It is the major laboratory dealing with the makeup of matter and basic physics," Frank said.

"The fact the federal government is disinvesting in the program is a national tragedy."

[Illustration] Photo (color) by Greg Adams Jefferson Lab; Caption: The Free-Electron Laser vault at Jefferson Lab, with the superconducting accelerator in the background and the magnetic wiggler in the foreground. The lab's budget was cut by $7.8 million.