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Screwed by the Democrats January 8, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics.

Well, first some facts (and then onto more speculation). As a result of the omnibus budget agreement that cut science hard – and particle physics as well:

  • BaBar and the SLAC b-factory will be shutting down early – in February (see video of the all hands meeting where this was discussed). They are basically being sacrificed so that the Tevatron can keep running. I believe their normal shutdown was the end of the year. As a member of an experiment on the Tevatron, all I can say is “thanks” and “sorry”. What a waste.
  • SLAC and Fermilab will both have to fire a bunch of people. I’ve heard numbers like 10% and SLAC and similar numbers at Fermilab but I don’t know for sure.
  • International Linear Collider accelerator research has been basically zeroed out for this year. Actually, they said we could spend 15 million. The problem was they told us to spend something like 85 million several months ago for the whole year – so we started to burn through it and now we are told we could only spend 15 million. So there is effectively nothing left.
  • NOvA was put off at least a year. This is the off axis neutrino experiment that was to measure, among other things, theta13.

The Department of Energy‘s Office of Science’s Kovar put it well when discussing the most significant possible impacts of this:

This loss of skilled and highly trained personnel will be difficult for our community and will have impacts beyond the delays in NOvA and ILC R&D since many laboratory staff work on multiple efforts.

What makes this so painful for us is that all signs pointed towards increased funding – and then the rug was pulled out from under us. Indeed, even the direction from the agencies was to increase our funding. Since congress the white house and persons blue and red were all pointing in the same direction we thought we were home safe. Turns out that may have been exactly what got us in the end.

So, the next part is speculation (well, some of it). Some pulled from conversations and also from an email the American Physical Society president sent around (I can’t find a copy of that email online). I think we got screwed because of some stupid high school bathroom brawl. Seriously! These people in Washington are supposed to be professionals and even if one group wants to be a set of idiots the others should rise above it all. As far as I can tell, here is what happened:

  • Congress just about finishes the omnibus spending bill. [Snark: exactly how late was this!?]
  • At the last minute Bush says he will veto it unless it comes at his number. [Snark: Presumably this is to prove that he is a fiscal conservative.]
  • Democrats and Republicans in congress go round and round. They do not have the votes to override a veto in the end.
  • Democrats give up and say “he wants it 22 billion cheaper? OK, we’ll do it”. [Snark: how did we not miss this big big warning sign that something bad was about to happen!? 20-20 hindsight!]
  • Perhaps 4 days later the bill is ready. They (the democrats or more likely the staffers) when through the bill looking for things that Bush wanted and cut them. ITER, which got nailed, was a presidential initiative. America Competes? Something Bush wanted. I am positive that no one involved would claim this is how it was done, but all fingers I can see point in that direction. [I have no snark here: sad]

What the hell were they thinking? They cut these programs just because they are pissed off at the White House? We elected them there to be intelligent about this. I don’t care that the White House is being a total idiot about this (i.e. not working with congress) — two wrongs don’t make a right!!!

On a more rational note. So, what can we do to prevent this from happening next time? There are several people in congress that are very interested in science, perhaps they need to be closer to the appropriations process? I have no idea. But I’d love to know what we need to do.

I’ll close with a short quote from an APS press release urging a revisit of the bill:

The American Physical Society, representing more than 46,000 physicists in universities, industry and national laboratories, regards the fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill as extraordinarily damaging to the nation’s science and technology enterprise. The bill fails to fund appropriately the research and education programs authorized in the bipartisan America COMPETES Act, which President Bush signed into law only four months ago. The consequential layoffs of scientists and engineers throughout the nation will discourage American youth from pursuing these fields, just as the country needs their participation to sustain economic growth and national security.


1. Dave Bacon - January 8, 2008

To be fair I think your title should be “Screwed by Democrats and Bush (and the weasly Republicans who won’t stand up to their incompetent commander)”

2. Dave Bacon - January 8, 2008

BTW, I think your narrative is very similar to the story I’ve heard.

3. Dave Bacon - January 8, 2008

Of interest: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/01/07/557301.aspx

Says that they not just killed ITER funding but forbade the DOE from moving money around to fill the gap.

4. gordonwatts - January 8, 2008

Dave, a few things. 🙂

– Yes, in the end, I agree there is blame to go around. Heck, we elected the guys. But when it came right down to the wire it was the democrats who pulled the trigger – and the reasons they pulled it…

– I saw that about the ITER funding. Was the “can’t move around” actually in the law that was passed, or only in the guidence? I’ve been hearing that they have enough leeway to satisfy the treaty obligations move moving some cash from this year or something simlar. But again, I’ve not found someone who actually knows.

5. pace - January 9, 2008

The Joint Explanatory Statement (http://www.rules.house.gov/110/text/omni/jes/jesdivc.pdf) says,
“Funding may not be reprogrammed from other activities within Fusion Energy Sciences to restore the U.S. contribution to ITER.”

I wrote a little about this, including quoting that part above, on my website,

6. A CDF friend - January 9, 2008

Gordan, as a scientist, you have no proof of where to put blame – usually you don’t just speculate. I’d also like to understand how the process worked. My guess is most in Congress were worrying about billions for Iraq not millions for science.

Someone, somewhere decided to rip DOE office of science with HEP and ITER in particular. How did this process actually happen?

In the end, it was more the blame of Republicans to push a costly war on Iraq than to put forth a war on terrorists. That’s where the money went.

7. gordonwatts - January 10, 2008

Hi CDF friend,
It is better than speculation at this point, I’m afraid. And I stand behind my words so far. Appropriations committee chair did give up in frustration (and I’m sure he was frustrated — I would have been). The problem was the next step: the staffers/congresspeople seem to have just tried to hurt the person that was frustrating them: the white house. My problem with that is those people are supposed to be profesionals — not react as one might in a high school background (“ok, you hurt me, I’ll hurt you!”). When they did that, a lot of people got hurt in the cross fire. It was blue bullets that hit us in this case. The fact that they were being fired at the red side may well have been justified, as you point out.

Your point about going to Iraq is well taken. As I said, ultimately, we have no one but ourselves to blame: we elected them. We get what we deserve.

Everything except what happened behind closed doors at the last minute (when they cut that 22 billion) is a matter of public record. Further, the president of the APS does not send an email out to 40k people containing similar information without some justification. But you are perfectly right — I don’t know who was behind the closed doors. But the democrats are in control and the list of programs cancled seem to match pretty well with ones that the white house was pushing. That is speculation (as I mention in the original post), and what I can’t, obviously, prove.

At any rate, it is time to move on and try to fix this. There are calls to get congress to reexamine some of the cuts they made. Lets hope that happens, but I really doubt it. And from the recent lab annoucements it may be too late to repair some of the damage.

Finally, I’m not trying to pick on the democrats — I am a democrat. As I mentioned in another post, the result of my getting pissed off here was that I sent a bunch of cash to Bill Foster, who is a democrat. There are some specific democrats I’m angry at… and in general, of course, the republican’s over the Iraq war.

8. More on ITER « Life as a Physicist - January 10, 2008

[…] a commenter pointed out, of course, I can’t really know what happened – and the actual  decision process will […]

9. gordonwatts - January 10, 2008

One more thing — all of the staffers and congress people I’ve met have been hard working and quite up front about what is going on and how things work (I’ve not met many – perhaps 10 people that work on the hill).

And staffers and members of congress are human, obviously, and especially during the final days of the budget when so much was at stake and they were faced with such an impossible situation — well, I’m sure tempers were lost – and it was justified.

My difficulty is with what happens with the anger – specifically targeting programs not based on their merits, but only because the other side likes them (at least, that is what it looked like happened). When folks in congress get mad at each other lots of people get caught in the cross fire.

Finally, I realize this has been going on, on all sides, for a while. I’m only angry now because I and the work I do got caught directly in the crossfire. Dead-to-rights, I should have been angry earlier than this – when I first saw it happening to someone else.

10. Das ITER-Projekt: USA spaltet in der Fusionsforschung « Begrenzte Wissenschaft - January 10, 2008

[…] befindet sich die Teilchenphysik und damit die physikalische Grundlagenforschung in den USA in der Krise. Die Arbeit an zwei Großprojekten, BaBar und der b-factory am Stanford Linear Accelerator Center […]

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12. Visitor - January 11, 2008

The psychological compulsion to blame the Republicans for every political event which an observer doesn’t like, while exonerating or even commending the Democrats when, by ANY reasonable standard, they are the culpable party, calls for a explanation. And it is likely that this delusion colours more than just one’s outlook on this, particular specific situation.

13. gordonwatts - January 11, 2008

Visitor – I have sympathies for those that want to — the reason we are where we are is because of the awful budget situation and also the us-v-them attitude in DC. Both of those are not 100% the republican’s fault, but more than 50% at the moment. And they have been guilty of plenty of tit-for-tat politics, as have the democrats. No one is innocent here.

14. guest - January 13, 2008

This story ignores the fact that Denny Hastert resigned his seat (IL-14, home of Fermilab) less than a month before the bill was passed. When you have no one to speak up for you, it’s not hard to be the victim of a cut.

Note also that IL-14 will be without representation until March, and whatever freshman is elected will be immediately defending their seat until the November elections. So they are still in a very weak position through the end of FY09.

15. gordonwatts - January 13, 2008

Guest – thanks for your excellent points. I suspect you are right — however, even when he was speaker of the house Fermilab got nailed a few times, so not even that is 100% assurance. But the scince cuts were broader than that — and especially considering the original size of the increases across the board that were all cut.

And I’m sure the freshman rep will have their hands full beyond FY09 – my (very limited) impression is it takes a year or so before you learn your way around the capital!

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