Scientists to lose jobs in 2014 - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

UPDATE: Scientists to lose jobs in 2014


STOUGHTON (WKOW) – Three months after two University of Wisconsin-Madison physicists earned a Nobel Prize for the Higgs boson discovery, 30 scientists from another of the university's physics labs will lose their jobs.

The Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC), a $50-million facility based in Stoughton, opened in 1968 and is scheduled to close its doors on January 6, 2014 because of funding cuts by the National Science Foundation. The SRC is the first site in the world dedicated to this type of physics.

"The whole business of synchrotron light sources started here in Stoughton," SRC director
Joseph Bisognano said.

Half of the first-generation of synchrotron light sources is still in Stoughton. The other half is in the Smithsonian. These days, scientists utilize the "Aladdin" electron storage ring, a second-generation specialized x-ray machine that allows them to understand how cells are organized.

Research at the SRC over the past 55 years has included unraveling some of the mysteries of Alzheimer's, finding noninvasive brain cancer treatments, investigating algae as an alternative fuel source, understanding a new "miracle material" for computer chips called graphene, among other items we may use in everyday life.

"Thirty years ago, you were lucky to get hard drives measured in megabytes. Now, it's measured in gigabytes and terabytes, and that's because of the kind of research that was done here," Bisognano said.

The SRC's director says about a third of the facility's staff is already on leave, using up additional vacation days. And the 20 scientists left are in the midst of winding down experiments they've been working on for years.

"I will no longer be able to do my research anymore because unfortunately it requires time. And if this time is gone, it's gone," said scientist Ralf Wehlitz, who's been with the SRC since 1999. Wehlitz says he can use a similar facility in Berkeley, California, but there's a waiting list.

"Things were really coming together," Wehlitz said. "I kind of found something very interesting and now it comes to a premature end."

The SRC costs about $5 million per year to operate, large enough to make an impact in federal budgets, according to Bisognano.

"Underlying it all is the shrinking federal budget for science. For the larger labs, it's layoffs, but for something of our size, it's terminal. I'm worried about what's happening to American science in general. I see large facilities being built in Europe and in Asia. In the U.S., for what I see in synchrotron light, is falling behind," Bisognano said.

Representatives for UW-Madison have described the budget cuts as "terrible," warning that the cessation of funding basic science such as the research done in the SRC could impact future work.

"We're seeing it across the university – there are many research centers across campus that are all pretty much on soft money," said Steve Ackerman, associate dean of physical sciences for the UW-Madison Graduate School.

"I think all of those people who got a Nobel Prize for science are calling for the nation to stand up again and start funding basic research," Ackerman said, referring to the recent acclaim for work on the Higgs particle. "If we don't do that, down the road we're not going to be getting all those Nobel Prizes."

Ackerman says the university has provided temporary funding for the SRC after National Science Foundation (NSF) funding ran out in 2011; however, the UW says it can't continue to fund the facility unless the government is willing to foot the bill in the future.

Some Wisconsin politicians are concerned about what the closure will do to job growth, as places such as the SRC "are what create jobs. Our community benefits from that. And I think we need to do everything we can to make sure we are at the forefront of new technology, and it's part of the conversation we're going to have in the coming weeks," said Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), who reached out to the NSF in March hoping to protect the SRC.

The NSF did not comment directly on whether it would reconsider funding the SRC in the future, but said "ultimately, a decision was made, through NSF's merit review process, to end support for the SRC facility. SRC certainly can apply for other NSF-funding…and we welcome that," deputy assistant director Celeste Rohlfing said in a statement to 27 News.

Bisognano says the SRC has submitted multiple proposals; however he feels "the NSF had made the decision and no matter what we did they were stuck with that decision."

According to a 2013 NSF report, its math and physical sciences department budgets have risen from about $1 billion to $1.3 billion in the last decade; however, purchasing power has stayed constant and the number of grant proposals has risen about 40 percent.

Rohlfing adds the NSF is taking a back seat to the Department of Energy (DOE) when it comes supporting synchrotron light sources in the country.

The SRC happens to be developing the third-generation light source for the DOE, a $4-million laser gun called the Wisconsin Superconducting Radio Frequency Gun. It will be seven football fields long when and if it's completed. However, the project has stopped short while the SRC waits for the green light after the government shutdown at the beginning of October further delayed renewal of the contract, which expired in August.

"Funding decisions will likely not be made until the current issues surrounding the fiscal year 2014 budget are resolved," a DOE spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Bisognano wants the "NSF to reconsider what they've done because they're really destroying something that is the best in the world," he said, boasting that the facility has the best infrared light technology and "dollar for dollar, we produce as many premiere papers than any of the facilities in the country."

The NSF says that despite encouragement from synchrotron experts to stay in the light source game five years ago, Rohlfing says, "What was true in 2008, both in funding expectations and scientific landscape, rapidly became outdated."

Bisognano says that the SRC's history has no sway with the government agencies, even though the facility has been upgraded constantly over the years.

"That's somehow lost. They say this accelerator has been running for 20 or 30 years so it's an older one. You want to look further down the line, and that's the thing [the government] seems to miss. They want something newer," Bisognano said.

Bisognano says the SRC is currently exploring private funding to stay afloat, but still figuring out what to do with the equipment when January comes.

"It's a $50-million facility. It shouldn't just be dismantled over weeks willy nilly, put it in the parking lot for the dumpster people to come," Bisognano said.

Bisognano is also a professor at the UW-Madison school of engineering, so he says it's likely he'll likely teach more once the SRC closes.

As for the scientists, "I'm looking for a job," said Wehlitz. "I'm double hit: my research is in jeopardy and my position is going to be gone very soon."
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