It’s a universal source of anxiety among scientists these days: uncertainties about federal funding for research as budgets are cut or scaled back.
That uncertainty became stark reality at a fusion experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was slated to be zeroed out altogether in the federal budget. The Alcator C-Mod experiment at MIT had stopped accepting new graduate students in 2012, and 70 employees were facing layoffs.
Those researchers, engineers, and technicians got a reprieve last week with the unexpected news that the budget deal passed by Congress included $22 million for the experiment, which had been slated to shut down. The goal of the experiment is to learn how to harness nuclear fusion — combining atoms — to produce energy.
With the flush of new funding, the experiment will run for its typical span and no one will be laid off, according to Miklos Porkolab, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center where the project is housed.
Although the funding announcement is great news for the project, it doesn’t resolve the larger problem: The project was treading water month-to-month.
“What we’d like to do is again resume bringing in more graduate students. At this funding level, we could do that. The only issue is what happens in 2015,” Porkolab said. “If we bring in students, they expect five years of support for a PhD.”
When the Obama administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year is unveiled, Porkolab fears it may not have set aside any money for the fusion experiment.
“We may have to go through the same cycle again,” Porkolab said. The uncertainty, he said, takes its toll on the science and the people who work on the experiments.