Federal budget cuts hit University ecology lab, cause controversy

U.S. Department of Energy funding cuts at the University’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory have prompted letters of support for the laboratory from high-ranking officials and sparked a congressional investigation.

But a top University official said the impact of the investigation and ongoing restructuring of the lab has been overstated.

David Lee, vice president for research, said lab officials were aware for the last several years that month-by-month funding from DOE soon would be eliminated. The natural ebb and flow of federal government priorities, rather than political vendettas, has driven budget cuts, he said.

“The notion that the federal government gives out funding to sustain laboratories for a period of time is frankly an outdated model that doesn’t match the reality of today’s world,” Lee said. “There really are no big surprises here.”

The lab’s financial crisis sparked this summer when DOE decided to decrease the lab’s funding by about $4 million and forced the layoff of about 40 employees, including Carl Strojan who was making about $112,000 annually as the lab’s associate director.

More layoffs are expected in the near future resulting in researchers moving their research to the University’s main campus.

At the urging of Georgia and South Carolina congressional delegations, particularly Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), the congressional investigation into the lab began in July with hearings before the Committee on Science and Technology. The hearings, held July 17 and Aug. 1, featured testimony from officials of DOE, SREL, the Savannah River Site and the scientific community.

SREL is a research facility with close ties to the Savannah River Site, a DOE-managed nuclear processing facility near Aiken, S.C., built during the Cold War. DOE and University officials who deny ulterior motives behind the funding cuts say media reports have overstated SREL’s role as a watchdog of SRS.

“I don’t think the researchers that work at SREL saw their primary role as watchdogs,” Lee said.

Much of the conflict over the lab’s funding has come from differing interpretations of a December 2006 cooperative agreement between DOE and SREL. Officials at SREL say they viewed the document as a guarantee of funds for general research meeting broad goals, while DOE said SREL had to fill specific DOE needs to receive the funding.

“We submitted different things. We reworked them numerous times to be responsive. We did this with DOE officials,” Strojan said. “Every time we seemed to make progress, it seemed the people at DOE headquarters would block it.”

Strojan said DOE changed its interpretation of the agreement midway through the fiscal year, saying research would not receive funding unless it was critical to DOE’s mission for the current fiscal year. The requirement for research that was more immediate and less long-term in nature put a new condition on projects that was not implied in the cooperative agreement and made it impossible for SREL to obtain substantial funding, Strojan said.

“We really knew when that standard was imposed on us that we were in some trouble,” said former SREL director Paul Bertsch, who is now a professor and senior researcher at the lab.

“A cooperative agreement is supposed to have a public benefit and take a long-term view of what is being provided,” Strojan said. “It’s very different than a procurement contract.”

Lee said the cooperative agreement has not been misinterpreted.

“It’s DOE’s cooperative agreement, so I think they understand what was written,” he said.

Lee said some have accused the University of backing off the fight to restore funding to SREL in order to capitalize on other relations with DOE, particularly a $125 million bioenergy facility the University is set to build.

Those accusations have no merit, Lee said. “That is simply not how the world works.”

Barrow brought SREL’s funding battle to the attention of the Committee on Science and Technology after receiving a letter from a top DOE official that contained several inaccuracies, Bertsch said. “I think (the committee’s) assessment will be that there were irregularities that came at a very high level in the DOE,” he said.

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