US defence labs face research cutbacks…

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National defence laboratories in the United States have had to tighten their belts to meet last-minute cuts in funding for long-term research projects chosen at the discretion of their directors. The cuts were quietly imposed by Congress in September as it raced to meet its budget deadline.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, for example, has introduced a 90-day moratorium on hiring scientists while its officials consider how to reorganize their research in the light of the budget reductions. Some scientists can be hired during this period, however, but only if special recruitment needs arise.

Officials at the Sandia National Laboratories say they have imposed a special review process under which only the most critically needed scientists will be hired for its centres in Livermore, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sandia expects to receive about $51 million this year for its discretionary research fund. Last year it received about $79 million.

The federal budget for the fiscal year 2000, as approved by Congress, calls for discretionary research and development funds to be reduced from six to four per cent of each laboratory's budget. The directors of the laboratories can use these funds, distributed by peer review, to begin promising scientific projects, and the money is considered critical for underpinning weapons development and scientific programmes.

“In the long run, this is a major setback,” says Klaus Lackner, acting associate director for strategic and supporting research at the Los Alamos laboratory. According to officials, the lab will receive about $45 million for the research fund, compared with $70 million last year. “We're eating the seed corn of our future,” he says.

One Los Alamos staff member describes the cuts as “demoralizing” for researchers, claiming that some young researchers have begun looking elsewhere for positions because “they don't see a future” at the lab.

“Weapons are a high-technology business,” says Charles Meyers, deputy director for operations and lab development at Sandia. “You have to keep an eye on emerging technologies. The sense of our scientific community is that, if you cut research and development, you are not going [to achieve the desired goals]”.

Programme managers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California say they are studying how to implement the cuts with the least damage. Top officials at the laboratory, who came under fire last week for mismanaging the construction of the National Ignition Facility (see right), declined to be interviewed.

But they said in a statement that they “are extremely concerned about the impact of this cut” that “will undermine the basic foundations of our current and future programme”. Livermore's research fund is being pared to $35 million from $58 million, said a spokesman.

The non-weapons laboratories owned by the Department of Energy, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also in California, spend less on research conducted at the discrection of their directors and will not be affected by the congressionally-imposed ceiling on it. But officials say a 30 per cent cut in travel expenditure imposed across the board by Congress on the Department of Energy, labs, could have an impact on the ability of scientists to travel to conferences. “It's not a very constructive environment to do science,” says Mike Chartock, head of planning and communication.

Some claim that Congress's cuts in research funds have been triggered by growing concern over management failures by the energy department. Others blame the cuts on political fighting between the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress at the beginning of an election year. A statement issued by the energy department argues that the reduction “will significantly impact long-term weapons programme milestones”.

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Dalton, R. US defence labs face research cutbacks…. Nature 402, 449 (1999) doi:10.1038/44902

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