SLAC Today logo

From the Director: The Budget in Difficult Times

(Photo - Persis Drell)
(Photo by Brad Plummer.)

Before addressing anything else in this column, I want to start with a thought for the tragedy that has unfolded this past week in Japan. On a macro scale, it's impossible not to be deeply affected by the images we see each day coming from the areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. Closer to home, we can only be thankful that our colleagues, Glen White and Mark Woodley, who were in Japan at the time of the earthquake, have safely made it back home. All our thoughts continue to be with the people of Japan and the difficult times they face in the weeks and months ahead.

While it's difficult to discuss a topic such as Congressional budget negotiations while a tragedy of this magnitude is unfolding, I do want to update you on where we stand with regard to our 2011 funding. As many of you have no doubt heard by now, Congress this week approved another continuing resolution to fund the federal government for another 3 weeks. The CR does include a provision for $6 billion more in cuts, but none of those affect the Office of Science or the national laboratories. Many of you have also read that there is increasing opposition in both the House and the Senate—and from both sides of the political aisle—to the idea of another short-term continuing resolution after this one expires. The pressure is now on both parties to reach a compromise for the remainder of the 2011 budget before this resolution ends on April 8.

That said, the two sides remain far apart on the details of what that budget should look like. The Senate recently proposed a budget bill with higher numbers than the one passed by the House of Representatives a few weeks ago. While that Senate bill did not advance, it is an indication of how far apart the two chambers are with regard to what, and how much, to cut from the federal budget. It will be difficult to reach a compromise in three short weeks, but I do believe both sides are motivated to do so. Lawmakers not only want to avoid another CR, but have little incentive to trigger a shutdown that could add to current events' impact on the world's fragile economy.

So, while I personally believe we will avoid a government shutdown when this new CR runs out, and that we will have a budget for the rest of the fiscal year by April 8, we are no closer to knowing what that budget will be. As I said in the All Hands meetings two weeks ago, the chances that we will not see a reduction of some kind are extremely small, so we continue to make contingency plans for the best ways to absorb that reduction when we know the size of the cuts.

I do want to make one point clear with regard to the timeline. We are all anxiously waiting to see the budget that will finally be passed by Congress and signed by the President. However, that budget will not tell us how much we need to cut, or in what areas. It will only give us figures for the Office of Science funding. There will be a short period of time between the budget passing and the Office of Science making its decisions on how to absorb those cuts and giving us guidance. As I've said before, I do not anticipate that every program, whether here at SLAC or at other laboratories, will face equal reductions, so direction from the Office of Science will be crucial before we can make further decisions on how and where to invest our allocated budget for the remainder of the fiscal year.

In the meantime, I and other lab directors will continue our efforts to educate lawmakers about the important work being carried on by the national laboratories. I hope to meet with Congressional representatives here in California next week when they are on recess and back in their districts, and I plan to spend a significant portion of the following two weeks in Washington, D.C. I will continue to keep everyone informed on my activities and anything else I learn about the budget.

Let me end on a positive note, to remind all of us of the bright future awaiting SLAC. I was in Europe last week and had the opportunity to visit the SOLEIL synchrotron laboratory in France and the Rutherford Laboratory with the Diamond Light Source outside of Oxford. I was there to learn about their facilities, but nearly everyone I met wanted to talk to me about the work going on at LCLS and its tremendous potential. The February Nature papers detailing the nanocrystal and single cell imaging results from LCLS had been read by nearly everyone and are already being looked to as seminal publications that herald a new era of discovery driven by LCLS's capabilities. Meanwhile, we are preparing for the LCLS II CD-1Review in April.

In uncertain times, it's more important than ever to look forward, and to remember that our best discoveries remain ahead of us.

—Persis Drell
SLAC Today, March 18, 2011