February 29, 2008

Cornell Plagued by 11 Layoffs

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Even as the federal deficit grows, with President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2009 budget proposal calling for an almost $250 billion increase in the deficit, cuts in basic research have begun to deplete many research institutions of resources. Last month, 11 of about 110 employees at Cornell’s Laboratory for Elementary-Particle Physics were laid off as a result of National Science Foundation funding cuts, outlined in Congress’s December omnibus appropriations bill.
Around the same time, almost 200 employees at both the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center had to leave, also due to a funding shortage, this time through the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The remainder of the Fermilab employees are also now under a “rolling furlough” of two days each month of leave without pay, according to the lab’s website.
Although Bush’s budget proposal last year had called for increases in funding for physical sciences, as part of his American Competitiveness Initiative, by the time Congress passed the bill, the NSF and DOE Office of Science saw a 0.9 percent decrease and a mere 0.5 percent increase in their respective budgets, which fell into the negative when adjusted for inflation. Both end results meant a 6.5 percent decrease of Bush’s original plans and the subsequent layoffs of employees ranging from technicians to physicist postdocs.
In addition, several key projects at each of these labs face termination. For instance, CLEO, a particle physics experiment at LEPP, has to end one month earlier than planned, according to Prof. James Alexander, physics, who heads LEPP.
“Among other things, we have subcontracts with Fermilab to do work on international linear collider issues, and those were zeroed out because Fermilab no longer had money to spend on this,” he said.
Fermilab also had to halt all work on its NOvA experiment, which involved building a detector for neutrinos, a type of elementary particle.
As for the employees who were laid off, a potentially long search for jobs began, though the institutions offered some level of support in their efforts. Alexander mentioned Cornell’s extensive human resources support, and at Fermilab, similar help is available, ranging from interview workshops to resume reviews, according to Young-Kee Kim, Fermilab deputy director.
“Cornell has been quite supportive in so far as they can be,” Alexander said. “Of course they can’t pick up our whole budget by any means but they’ve certainly been very supportive of our line of research and future plans. They have contributed about $1-2 million funding to the lab over the last few years. It has helped offset some of the losses from the NSF.”
Basic research funding may not improve soon. Although Bush’s 2009 budget proposal requested roughly 16 percent increases in both the NSF and the DOE Office of Science, a repeat of the 2008 budget may occur, whereby Congress’s decision ultimately whittles away at these increases.
In a letter, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-22nd District) speculated that “these programs were a victim of the process whereby the president threatened to veto any bills that were over his spending proposals. This led to a rearranging of the budgets for each of these offices, and a zeroing out of programs supported by the president.”
Given the upcoming presidential elections, Alexander found it hard to predict the changes in basic research funding, saying there would be “perhaps a whole new political outlook.” Kim was reserved in expecting immediate changes, given the possibility of a half-year lag in budget legislation, as the new president settles in, that could cause the current dismal 2008 budget to last well into 2009.
This national trend of diminishing funding for the physical sciences has the added effect of reaching undergraduates and potential physicists.
“Above and beyond the damage due to layoffs and curtailment of programs, there’s the loss of morale and the danger or actualization that people simply leave the field or don’t come into it,” Alexander said, an opinion echoed by several students.
“Such cuts in funding affect undergraduates because they limit our research opportunities, particularly the summer opportunities that usually offer living stipends. Such opportunities are important both for gaining experience before graduate school and exploring interesting research topics,” Avtar Singh ’08, a physics major, stated in an e-mail. “If less of these opportunities are available for undergraduates, it will discourage careers in physics and lower our scientific standing amongst other nations. In fact, there is already tremendous pressure on intelligent physics students to leave the field for more lucrative careers in finance or industry.”
One affected student programs is the College of Engineering’s co-op program, which allows students to foray into the real-world jobs, including a position at LEPP.
“The cut LEPP funds have led to my former job, which should be going to a rising engineering student, to be cancelled outright,” Mike Sassone ’08, mechanical engineer who did the co-op with LEPP, stated in an e-mail. “It was a valuable learning experience for me and it is a shame that no other students will be able to have it.”
The national trend in science funding also endangers the country’s science standing in the world. For example, another of the Fermilab’s major projects whose funding froze was the International Linear Collider, a huge accelerator to be built that “will smash electrons and their antimatter particles, positrons, together at nearly the speed of light,” according to the ILC website. In a letter to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman wrote, “The U.S. will lose its leadership role in the global design effort for the next major international [high energy, or particle physics] project, putting the selection of [Fermilab] as a potential site for the International Linear Collider in jeopardy.”
The cease in U.S. funding for the ILC project, which involves scientists from over two dozen countries, as well as for another international collaboration, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor a large- scale fusion energy experiment, has also damaged the U.S. reputation abroad. According to Kim, “the U.S. is getting know for being unreliable,” in such international-scale projects.