Jefferson Lab budget at risk for cuts

A squeeze in federal energy programs could affect the Newport News physics lab.

Jefferson Lab is bracing for the most significant budget cut in its 19-year history, as the U.S. Department of Energy prepares to absorb an 8.4 percent reduction in its nuclear physics programs.

Officials at the Newport News laboratory said they did not yet know what size their budget will be or what impact a cut would have on programs.

But in congressional testimony last spring, the head of the nonprofit agency that runs the lab said the Energy Department cutback could require reducing the lab's operating time by a quarter and reducing its work force by as much as 10 percent.

The $600 million laboratory, which employs about 650 people, opened in 1996 to probe the nucleus of the atom to better understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The lab's discovery of a subatomic particle called the pentaquark was hailed as one of the top 10 science stories of 2003 by Discover Magazine.

The pending cut to Jefferson Lab comes as part of a $34 million reduction in nuclear physics research funding for the Energy Department's Office of Science. The cut, first proposed by President Bush in February, won final approval by Congress last week.

Lab officials said they were surprised by the cut because the House and Senate had proposed increasing nuclear physics funding in each of their respective spending bills. But senior House and Senate negotiators, in crafting a compromise, opted to approve Bush's cut to find money for other programs while abiding by budget caps aimed at curbing the federal deficit.

"We thought we were out of the woods until the very last day of the conference," said Fred Dylla, the lab's chief technology officer. "We were not pleased with the outcome. The laboratory has never had a significant budget cut."

Dylla said the lab's annual operating budget, set at $86 million last year, could be reduced to about $78 million for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. But the precise budget total and impact on programs won't be clear until the Department of Energy decides how to allocate its nuclear physics funding. The spending bill approved by Congress does not specify a budget for Jefferson Lab.

More than half the nuclear physics funding is spent on Jefferson Lab and the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

Senators, in approving the bill last week, pledged to work with the Department of Energy to reallocate funds and minimize the impact on the two labs.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Appropriations energy subcommittee and a key budget writer, said the nuclear physics programs "merit appropriate consideration for additional funding under the circumstances."

Virginia and New York senators pushed to increase funding for the labs and pressed Domenici for assistance.

"As a result of this cut, the Jefferson Lab will have to reduce the physics output of this world-leading laboratory by 25 percent," Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., said during Senate floor debate on the bill last week. "It seems to me that this is a time when the nation needs to invest in science, not cut science programs."

After hearing such protests, Domenici said, "I pledge my efforts to work with the department and other congressional leaders to help resolve this issue."

But it was not clear how much flexibility the Energy Department would have to spare the labs and still manage to cut its nuclear physics research programs by 8.4 percent.

Funding for nuclear physics will total $370.7 million this year, down from about $405 million last fiscal year. The House had recommended increasing the funding this year to $408 million; the Senate topped that with a plan for $419.7 million.

That is why lab officials were stunned when the final product that emerged from a House-Senate conference committee called for a net funding cut.

"Nobody really saw this coming," said Greg Kubiak, spokesman for the Southeastern Universities Research Association Inc., a nonprofit consortium of 62 universities than runs Jefferson Lab. "We were blindsided when the conference committee came out."

Jerry Draayer, the consortium's president, lobbied the House in March for a 7 percent increase in nuclear physics funding while warning that Bush's proposed cut "will reduce operating time by roughly 25 percent and may require an up to 10 percent reduction in force" at Jefferson Lab.

Asked Tuesday what the impact on the lab would be , Dylla said: "At this point, we can't even tell you. It's just too early to say."