by Elizabeth Clements
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Flat budgets, visa roadblocks, contract competition and the search for a new director stood out as the hot topics at the Universities Research Association's annual Council of Presidents meeting on February 4 at the National Academy of Sciences. And with the unveiling of the Department of Energy's FY05 budget request only days before the meeting, it came as no surprise when funding concerns took center stage.
"As I look at our country, our universities combined with our research labs are our secret weapons. They have supplied half of the jobs since World War II, and technology gives us our standard of living. We need to continue to make strong investments in science, " he said.
When it comes to increasing the DOE Office of Science budget, Alexander recommends taking advantage of the election year. "Achieving an increase in funding takes persuading the president that the key to increasing jobs depends upon strong investments in the physical sciences," he said. "And now is a very good time to work on it."
Alexander is not alone in seeking ways to increase the Office of Science budget. "We have had the same budget of 285 million for 2002, 2003 and 2004," said Fermilab Director Mike Witherell. "We are doing less work toward the future and renewing our infrastructure than we should be doing."
At last year's meeting, John Marburger, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and chief science advisor to the President of the U.S., found himself in an unusual position because the FY04 budget had not been announced yet. "With no budget last year, I could do nothing but compare numbers," he said at this year's meeting. "This year I'm prepared to speak about the budget."
After several years of flat budgets, the President's FY05 budget request asks for just a 2% increase for the Office of Science, which would not cover the effects of inflation.
"During the past year, I have been trying to lower expectations about the budget," Marburger said. "President Bush's three priorities are protecting the homeland, the war against terrorism and improving the economy."
Marburger showed several graphs tracking the long-term pattern of Federal funding for science, and concluded: "It is very clear that other countries will have a very hard time catching up."
In addition to addressing budget concerns, Marburger also discussed the current visa delays and backlogs faced by foreign scientists attempting to enter the U.S.
"The visa situation is very damaging," he said. "There is a deep desire to improve the process and to speed it up. Very few people are actually rejected; the problem is that the screening process takes a very long time. Congress has to get this message. Perhaps you can help by bringing it to the attention of your Congressional representatives."
Witherell stressed that the international nature of Fermilab is crucial. "One of the biggest problems is visas, and it is common to the universities too," he said. "DOE lab directors don't have as much say. University presidents should take this on as an issue."
Next to funding and visas, the recent announcement about the DOE's decision to compete contracts for ten of its laboratories, including Fermilab, created the most interest. The Fermilab contract expires on December 31, 2006 and will be competed instead of being automatically extended as in other years. URA President, Fred Bernthal, addressed several issues and concerns raised by URA members.
"The DOE Blue Ribbon Commission on Contracting has accepted the idea that competition is good," Bernthal said. "The DOE announced a couple of weeks ago that it will compete the contracts of 10 of its labs, including Fermilab and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility."
Office of Science Deputy Director Jim Decker provided some insight into the DOE's reasons for competing contracts and summarized the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations.
"There has been a lot of attention to this issue, and Congress has pressed us for an increase in competition," he said. "The Blue Ribbon Commission Report recommended that long-term contracts are beneficial to the DOE, but the prospect of competition can promote high-quality performance. Somehow we have to find our way through this with Fermilab, and I share your concern."
Bernthal encouraged members of the URA to focus on Fermilab's scientific mission and the tasks at hand. On October 3, 2003, Witherell announced his plan to step down as Fermilab director in July 2005.
"We need to get on with the task of recruiting a new director for Fermilab," Bernthal said. "We have many commitments for the laboratory, and we need to move forward with our research ambitions."
The URA has formed a Search Committee for a new director, chaired by Neal Lane, University Professor at Rice University. Bernthal and URA Vice President Ezra Heitowit outlined their plan for recruiting a new director.
"A charge has been drafted for the Search Committee," Bernthal said. "A description of the characteristics sought will be in the charge."
Since the search will be "full field," Heitowit explained that classified ads would be placed in the appropriate journals. The Search Committee will submit a short list of candidates to the Fermilab Board of Overseers, and the final candidate must also be approved by the Secretary of Energy. Bernthal also reiterated that the DOE contract competition would not affect the planned procedure in the search for a new director.
"We hope to close the search process by late this summer," said Don Hartill, Chair of the Fermilab Board of Overseers. "That will give Fermilab nearly a full year of overlap with the new designated director."
A full day of discussing budgets, visas, and contracts ended with a big lift as Witherell described the recent improved performance of the Tevatron.
"Collider performance has been better than ever," Witherell said. "We have established that the Recycler can store antiprotons. Integrated luminosity is right where we hoped it to be, and unexpectedly good Tevatron reliability overcame the losses from the shutdown in December. The Booster distributed more protons than ever to MiniBooNE, and this week we had a record store. The morale for people working on the accelerator is very high right now. We are very optimistic that we are getting as much out of the accelerator as possible over the next few years."
On the Web:
Universities Research Association:
DOE FY2005 Budget Request:
Blue Ribbon Commission Report on the Use of Competitive Procedures for DOE Laboratories
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