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Committee Nixes Accelerator Funding

By Jeremy Hylton
Technology Director

In a move that has shocked researchers and administrators alike, a House subcommittee yesterday approved a plan that would eliminate funding for MIT's Bates Linear Accelerator and four other nuclear physics particle accelerators next year.

"It will have a devastating impact and we think it is totally undeserving," said Professor Robert P. Redwine, head of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, which runs Bates. The cut "is not based on a real understanding of what goes on at these labs," he said.

The speed with which the budget mark was passed surprised MIT officials. The preliminary markup, released Tuesday, was approved yesterday. The markup eliminates the $18.6 million the Clinton administration had requested for Bates, as well as funding for four other accelerator programs across the country.

Located in Middleton, Mass., Bates employs 122 and is used by six MIT professors, several senior research scientists, and 22 graduate students. Researchers from across the country, including 30 graduate students from other schools, also use the Bates facility.

Two last-minute amendments to the budget proposal failed yesterday on a pair of 1212 votes. The amendments were introduced by Rep. John W. Olver, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican and a Berkeley-educated physicist.

"These facilities are not only vital for the training of students, but also conduct important research," Ehlers said.

Spokesmen from MIT and the Massachusetts Congressional delegation were hopeful that funding would be restored by the full House Science committee. MIT spokesman Kenneth D. Campbell noted that Rep. Robert S. Walker (RPa.), chair of the House Science Committee, voted for the amendment.

Leslie Lillard, Olver's press secretary, acknowledged that it would be more difficult to restore funding after the subcommittee approved the cuts.

The Bates accelerator is a Department of Energy laboratory operated by MIT. The facility is a medium-energy electron accelerator. "The electrons are used to do precise experiments studying the structure of nuclei and protons and neutrons," Redwine said.

A recent upgrade added a stretcher/storage ring to the end of the linear accelerator. "This will allow unique experiments in this important research area," Redwine said. Bates also has the world's highest resolution energy loss spectrometer for measuring particle energy.

Along with Bates, four other accelerator projects are funded by the same program: the TUNL Laboratory run by University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Duke University, and facilities at Texas A&M University, the University of Washington, and Yale University.

Officials at other universities were also shocked by the proposed eliminations. "It is a disaster for us," said Joseph Natowitz, director of the Cyclotron Laboratory at Texas A&M. "It would shut down not just us, but every university-based accelerator in the country. It appears to have been put in place because people don't understand what these facilities are about."

The university accelerators have played an important role as training grounds for nuclear physicists, including John H. Gibbons, science adviser to President Clinton.

Local congressmen oppose cut

Rep. Peter G. Torkildsen, whose district includes Bates, and other members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation were quick to champion both Bates and the importance of the accelerator program as a whole.

Vest released a statement yesterday thanking Torkildsen for his support. "MIT is committed to continue to work with him on this issue of national significance. We are hopeful it can be turned around," Vest said.

MIT has also received some support from Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy, but they have not taken direction action because the Senate has not begun to consider specific funding authorizations, according to Ronald P. Suduiko, assistant to Vest for government and community relations.

"Our strategy is to maintain very close [ties] to the Massachusetts delegation, but also to the many other representatives and Senators that are involved in science and educational issues," Suduiko said.

Peer review process flouted

The elimination of the university accelerators surprised many people because it circumvented established national priorities and peer review processes.

"It is particularly surprising to us because this particular community has a very well established planning procedure," said Texas A&M's Natowitz. "They have an advisory committee to Department of Energy. They have reviewed the programs, given certain budget scenarios - all that seems to have been just ignored."

Vest was concerned because funding was reduced for university laboratories, but not for any of the national laboratories. "Such an approach is not consistent with the bipartisan commitment to strengthening basic research in the nation's universities," Vest wrote in a letter to the Massachusetts delegation.

The nuclear physics community, in conjunction with the DoE and the National Science Foundation, is currently in the middle of a review, Redwine explained. The review committee is headed by Professor Ernest J. Moniz, head of the Department of Physics.

"Indeed, in that process, Bates was recognized as a very important part of the national program in nuclear physics," Redwine said. "The agency has done a very thorough job of setting priorities and Bates has always been recognized as doing top-quality science."

Eliminating the smaller university accelerators will also hurt work at larger accelerators like Stanford, Brookhaven, and Fermilab near Chicago and in other nuclear physics projects, scientists said.

"They are staging areas for some of the major experiments at the big national laboratories. When you pull out the underpinning, you are doing damage all the way across the program," Natowitz said.