NEWPORT NEWS - Federal funding for pure scientific research should continue even if concrete results are years away, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Tuesday.
Speaking after a whirlwind tour of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Richardson said he would support physics research during his tenure in the cabinet, even as he acknowledged that getting money isn't always easy.
"This lab is in good shape - good financial shape," Richardson said. "There's a lot of pressure to produce, to come up with results, but I think there's got to be a little experimentation."
Richardson spent an hour looking at several of the Jefferson Lab's experiments. He walked the $600 million nuclear physics lab with a delegation that included state Secretary of Commerce and Trade Barry DuVal and Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Newport News.
At the end of his tour, Richardson watched students in the lab's BEAMS program - Becoming Enthusiastic About Math and Science - as they calculated their rate of speed on bicycles. BEAMS aims to get local middle school students interested in math and science.
"He saw a good mixture," said Fred Dylla, manager of the lab's free-electron laser program. "That was what we wanted him to see, the diversity here."
The Jefferson Lab gets about $70 million a year from the Department of Energy, enough for it to operate at about 58 percent capacity in terms of running experiments. Tuesday's trip was Richardson's first to the Jefferson Lab since he assumed the cabinet post in August.
Richardson praised the practical applications that have come out of the lab's work, such as technology-based economic development and medical research at the Applied Research Center next door, the free-electron laser project and educational programs for students of all ages.
Asked to justify spending money on the pure scientific research that goes on at the lab -probing the nature of atoms - Richardson had a more general answer: "It is very important for the future of science and mankind."
During a brief discussion at the Applied Research Center, state and local leaders, as well as a group of college presidents, urged Richardson to push for dollars for the lab, calling it a crucial tool in economic development.
"With a little more funding, we can do even better," Scott said. "It's not just theory; it's actually jobs."
Nathan Isgur, head of theory at the lab and one of the researchers who met Richardson, said convincing the government that pure science research is important is key to the lab's future.
"Industry can't afford to do this work, because it's not a quick payoff," Isgur said. "But a hundred years down the road, what we find out here might be the basis for so many things."
Richardson met with Jefferson Lab employees before leaving town. Lab director Hermann Grunder asked him to "do the best you can for science."
The Department of Energy also awarded several patents Tuesday for work being done at the lab and the Applied Research Center, ranging from a high-resolution imaging system for breast cancer patients to a sensitive fire-detection system that uses infrared light.
Submitted: Wednesday, January 13, 1999 - 1:00am