The budget deal that Congress approved earlier this month to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling kept in place automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
But those across-the-board cuts are causing concern in the scientific community, including at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In August, ORNL Director Thom Mason said the lab had been, up to that point, mostly immune from the cuts because of steps that UT-Battelle, the managing and operating contractor, had already taken to cut costs, including through workforce restructuring, reduced staff and overhead budgets, and benefit changes.
“We’ve just been doing everything we can to prepare for lean budgets,” Mason said.
But there was concern about the long-term impact of the cuts if they are extended, Mason said. One effect: The cuts could prevent the start-up of new research programs. Mason said the long-term impacts might not be felt for two to 20 years.
“The big impact is going forward,” he said. “Research science is all about new programs.”
In an interview posted by NPR on Monday, Mason expressed concern that the ability to replace ORNL’s Titan supercomputer, a machine that had been the fastest in the world one year ago but has since slipped to No. 2 behind a Chinese system, is moving further and further into the future. Researchers had hoped to replace Titan in 2017.
“The issue is not so much who’s No. 1 in the horse race,” Mason told NPR. “But we think it’s important for the U.S. to always be amongst that group that is pushing the envelope.”
In March, Mason was one of three national lab directors who wrote in Atlantic magazine that research cuts, possibly totaling tens of millions of dollars at U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that use lab resources to help power their research and development.
Canceling all new programs and research initiatives, possibly for at least two years, “will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities,” said the directors, who also included Paul Alivisatos, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Eric D. Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory.
The directors said less than one percent of the federal budget goes to fund basic science research. By slashing that spending even further, the government “will achieve short-term savings in millions this year, but the resulting gaps in the innovation pipeline could cost billions of dollars and hurt the national economy for decades to come,” the directors wrote.
Passed as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the automatic budget cuts were never expected to happen. Instead, Republicans and Democrats were supposed to reach a deal to reduce the deficit. But they didn’t, and the cuts started going into effect this spring.
Federal legislators of both parties have decried the across-the-board nature of the cuts, but they’ve been unable to make changes. There was some discussion of revising them during the recent showdown over the federal government shutdown, but they were left in place.
At ORNL, Mason reported in August that the lab’s funding was down about $100 million in Fiscal Year 2013, a budget cut of about 7 percent.
Then, in September, he told employees there could be another $100 million drop in funding in Fiscal Year 2014, so ORNL was implementing plans to further reduce overhead spending and opening a voluntary separation program that could reduce the workforce by up to 475 jobs. Those employees who are accepted will leave the payroll by Dec. 31.
Lab officials emphasized that they hope the number of staff cuts is smaller than 475. ORNL has about 4,400 to 4,500 employees.
The short-term deal approved by Congress earlier this month keeps the government open through Jan. 15 and raises the federal government’s debt ceiling through Feb. 7. That means legislators could resume their fiscal feud in less than three months.
Meanwhile, the fiscal 2014 sequestration cuts are expected to kick in by Jan. 15.