Worth The Wait

Demand at Jefferson Lab outstrips supply

If you build it, they'll come. Scientists, that is.

At the Jefferson Lab, not only will they come, they'll wait in line. And wait and wait and wait, for an average of 3½ years.

They have a lot of company in line: Nearly 1,000 researchers from around the world want beam time, the opportunity to work with the electron-smashing accelerator beam that is the precious commodity at the lab.

For physicists doing certain kinds of research on the inner workings of matter, the line at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility is the only line to wait in, because the lab has the world's most advanced equipment for studying the nucleus of the atom.

Sophisticated lab facilities always have a backlog on purpose, so their expensive equipment and personnel are never standing idle, waiting to be called on.

Still, the long wait at the Jeff Lab is but another confirmation of the international importance of the research center right here in our midst. For the region, it's a good sign, because demand for the lab's services helps ensure its continued support by the Department of Energy, which provides most of the funding. And that bodes well for plans, particularly those in Newport News, to take advantage of the lab's unique resources to attract businesses that want to capitalize on technology developed there.

Still, more capacity would be better. And there's one way that could materialize: with additional federal money. Last year, the Department of Energy allotted $73 million for research at the lab, enough to fund 30 research weeks a year, not the 40 requested. Even with national security realigning federal budget priorities, President Bush is asking Congress for an additional $5 million for the lab.

For the scientists and projects and potential discoveries waiting in line, the extra money could make a big difference. Now it's up to the Hampton Roads congressional delegation to persuade their colleagues in Washington to bring supply more in line with demand.