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$16M funding shortfall for Jeff Lab has ripple effect

Updated: March 2, 2012 - 1:29 pm

Posted: February 24, 2012

By Susan Smigielski Acker

Correspondent

A shortfall of $16 million in funding from the federal budget to upgrade the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, commonly referred to as CEBAF, at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News could not only cause a delay in construction but could slow the lab's science research.

The so-called 12 GeV Upgrade to CEBAF will allow physicists new methods for studying the basic properties of the building blocks of the universe, how they form and interact, and the forces that mediate these interactions, according to information provided by Deb Magaldi, public relations officer for the Newport News lab, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

With a wall of trees around it, Jefferson Lab is inconspicuous at its Oyster Point business district location. Scientific minds from around the world - including one-third of students obtaining their doctorates in nuclear physics, according to Deputy Director Bob McKeown - have related work there.

The lab opened in 1995 for research.

"After 15 years, it is time to expand and explore new frontiers," McKeown said.

The funding shortfall could inhibit exploration.

During the planning process for the upgrade, which is more than halfway complete, $66 million was planned for fiscal year 2012. Then members of Congress examined the Department of Energy's construction budget and reduced the lab's upgrade funding to $50 million last October. When the project was approved in 2009, the overall cost was set at $310 million.

The result has been a delay in construction, hiring of contractors and ultimately, scientific research.

"We have to replan and we can't do everything we wanted to," McKeown said. "We had to delay procurement, and staffing levels are less than what they would have been if the funding stayed as first planned."

The work that needs to be done was set to be completed in one year. "The present thinking is it will be 16 months," McKeown said.

"We have to do the same amount of work with fewer people for a longer time."

Stretching out the construction time could end up costing more than the original amount, he said.

"The hope is that Congress created the problem and we can fix it," he said. "There is also hope it will be made up in fiscal year 2013."

U.S. Rep. Rob Whitman, R-Westmoreland County, represents the district that includes Jefferson Lab.

"Construction continues on the 12GeV Upgrade, which is an important project that will promote significant economic benefit to the Hampton Roads region," Whitman said in a statement in response to questions about funding cutbacks.

"I've long supported the work of the talented folks at Jefferson Lab. It is a strong component of our region's technology and research sector, and critical to our nation's nuclear physics research."

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, whose district is near the lab, did not respond by press time.

Magaldi said it was too soon to tell how hiring for the project has been affected.

"Project managers are still assessing the 12 GeV Upgrade project's budget, scheduling and options," she said.

The cut came about quickly when the budget was voted on and approved as Congress' deadline approached.

McKeown said the lab was somewhat relieved the reduction was to $50 million because at one point there was talk of reducing it to $40 million.

"That was very unnerving," he said.

While a four-month delay may not sound like much for other industries, for the Jefferson Lab physicists and for physicists around the world who use the lab, McKeown said, "It is an eternal delay."

The reason is that timing and proper planning for experiments and research are crucial.

The delay affects others besides staff scientists.

"There is a large community around the world being delayed by this," he said.

He estimated it will affect about 1,200 users.

"It is a domino effect," McKeown said. "Many do research in which the timing is important."

As of right now, no programs have been delayed because it is early in the change, Magaldi said.

The reputation of the lab could be at stake as well, McKeown said.

"We do compete with other labs around the world," he said. "This puts us at a disadvantage. Those scientists who had planned on coming to Jefferson Lab might do their work elsewhere. The U.S. reputation in this area is in trouble as an international partner. This is not helping the situation."

A delay can especially impact student researchers and new faculty.

"Students will find us less desirable if they can't get work done," he said.

The average assistant professor has six years to do research and present it.

A loss of two years could "blow a career" for what he called some of the best and brightest.

The research, and its delay, also reaches the everyday citizen, producing an effect for years to come, he said.

"This type of science does not give quick answers but takes years to be applied for everyday uses," McKeown said. "But once it is done, it can have significant impact, especially in medicine."

An example is the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute just a few miles from Jefferson Lab, McKeown said. The recently opened center is using cutting-edge technology to treat cancer patients.

"The technology was being worked on when I was a baby decades ago," he said. "It takes many decades to realize the uses of super-conducting."

In addition to the cuts to the upgrade, McKeown said the overall operating budget at the lab has remained flat.

"We have barely had a cost-of-living increase," he said. "That too puts us at a disadvantage."

McKeown, who taught at California Institute of Technology for 30 years, is forthcoming about his feelings about the cuts in science overall.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, companies like Bell Labs would do this type of research. But the focus at commercial places has been on the bottom line. They don't do research and development. So it is up to the government to keep up especially for health developments.

"This is pattern in the U.S. and is something to be concerned about. It is not wise because it is an investment in our future."

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