BATAVIA, Ill. (STMW) – Budget woes are once again affecting the nation’s premier particle physics lab, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
On Thursday, Fermilab Director Pier Oddone, speaking to a packed house at Wilson Hall, announced to his staff that the lab would be offering incentives to some employees in hopes of reducing its work force by at least 50. The reason, Oddone said, is the ongoing question of the 2011 federal budget, and how Fermilab — and science in general — will fit in.
Fermilab is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Oddone said that even without any cuts by Congress President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request for the Energy Department would leave Fermilab in a bind. Lab officials have run the scenarios, Oddone said, and in every one they come up short.
The buyout offer was made to roughly 600 employees, about one-third of Fermilab’s staff. Oddone said only those employees whose duties could be covered by the remaining staff were considered.
Part of Oddone’s distress comes from the high probability that the lame duck Congress will not pass a full budget by Dec. 3 and will instead approve another continuing resolution. This would leave the 2011 budget in the hands of the new Congress, one that would not include U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Batavia, a former Fermilab scientist.
Foster lost his re-election bid to state Sen. Randy Hultgren earlier this month. Hultgren’s campaign spokesman, Gill Stevens, said Hultgren considers Fermilab “a valued employer in the 14th District and an internationally renowned leader in research and innovation,” and would work to ensure it “has the resources necessary to continue its record of technological achievement.”
This is the second time in recent years that Fermilab has offered voluntary buyouts to its employees. The first was in 2008, when the proposed federal budget would have cut the lab’s funding by $22 million.
A total of 51 employees took buyouts then, and the lab was a week or two away from laying off several more when a supplemental appropriations bill passed in June and restored those funds. Foster played a key part in securing those federal dollars for the lab.
Fermilab employees who received the buyout offer have until Nov. 29 to take it.
If the lab does not get at least 50 employees to take the deal, Oddone said, there may be “more difficult things coming ahead.”
Oddone said he sees support for science and research from both parties, but the national economic situation makes things unpredictable.
“My optimistic hope is that science will be protected, and we will not have to make additional cuts,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee that.”
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