In a quick turn of fortune, Jeff Lab set for big boost in its budget

Spending cuts this year meant trimming jobs and research. President Bush's 2007 spending plan is much more friendly.

WASHINGTON — Jefferson Lab, hit with spending cuts and staff reductions this year, would get a major funding boost in President Bush's 2007 budget.

The nuclear physics laboratory in Newport News, funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, would see its annual budget swell from $80.5 million this year to $99.5 million next year.

The increase would make up for a surprise funding crunch this year that forced the lab to reduce its operating hours and eliminate 35 to 40 positions. The additional money also includes $7 million to begin an upgrade that will double the power of the lab's massive electron accelerator used in nuclear physics research.

"Thank goodness," said Linda Ware, a lab spokeswoman. "We are not complaining at all."

If approved by Congress, the new money should allow the lab to hire back staff and expand the lab's workload. The lab had been forced to reduce the operating time of its accelerator from 32 weeks a year to 26 weeks to cut costs.

The funding boost came as part of a 14 percent spending increase for the Energy Department's Office of Science. Bush, in his State of the Union address last month, announced a new American Competitiveness Initiative aimed at bolstering basic science research to make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy.

"This funding will be coupled with efforts to make much more effective use of our national laboratories for research and development leadership in the physical sciences," said Raymond Orbach, director of the Office of Science, in a written statement.

If approved, the newly proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 would signal a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Jefferson Lab.

Just three months ago, Congress approved a final spending plan for the current fiscal year that sliced about $9 million from the lab's budget and triggered a call for staff reductions.

The laboratory, which employs about 650 workers, 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.

Ware said this year's funding crunch forced the lab to lay off 10 to 15 employees who worked on a time-limited contract. The lab had hoped to keep those workers employed to help with the upgrade project but could not afford to do so. They left on Jan. 31, she said.

In addition, 24 more employees responded to a call for voluntary retirements, resignations or reduced hours, Ware said. The lab will decide next week how many of those requests will be approved.