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Durbin: Threatened Argonne Cuts Could Affect U.S. Ability to Compete Globally

Sen. Dick Durbin meets with lab researchers to discuss impact of proposed federal budget reductions.

Update 3/3/11: President Obama signed a two-week extension Wednesday after the Senate passed a measure asking for more time to deliberate the spending bill. The vote on the bill will now likely take place by March 16.

Proposed federal spending cuts that would close numerous labs at Argonne National Laboratory could threaten the nation’s ability to compete globally in research and innovation, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Monday during a visit to Argonne.

Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, met with scientists while touring Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials to discuss the impact  would have on the Darien-area energy lab’s operations.

H.R. 1, which the House passed Feb. 19, would slash $1.1 billion from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds much of the research at Argonne and .

The move would force Argonne to lay off about one-third of its workforce of 3,000, including roughly 700 researchers, Durbin wrote in a letter to Senate energy leaders Feb. 18. Lab directors told Durbin this would cause many facilities to shut down for three months or longer.

H.R. 1 also reduces a federal energy efficiency research budget by nearly $900 million and cuts funding for a program supporting innovative energy research from $300 million to $50 million. The Senate must vote on the federal spending bill by Friday.

Durbin said Monday that the House made thoughtless cuts without considering their long-term impact.

“Research, innovation and educational training are part of the basic infrastructure that builds this country,” he said.

Argonne Laboratory Director Eric Isaacs said about 5,000 scientists a year conduct research that relies on Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, a massive X-ray used to do research at the atomic level. The cuts would force Argonne to close the lab that houses the device—the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Abbott, BP and others, use Argonne's photon source in their research, Isaacs said. Abbott, for example, used the photon source to develop Kaletra, the most widely prescribed AIDS drug.

“They’ll find somewhere else to do it,” he said. “We don’t want U.S. companies walking away from us.”

Japanese and European researchers are developing a next generation model of the Advanced Photon Source that Isaacs said could lure U.S. companies abroad if Argonne is unable to make necessary upgrades, or worse, must close the lab.

Eli Lilly research director Stephen Wasserman said the Advanced Photon Source is crucial to the pharmaceutical company’s projects.

“What we’re doing here can’t be done elsewhere in the U.S,” he said. “[If this lab closes,] we’ll have to change how we do things or go overseas.”

Isaacs also pointed to Argonne’s ability to take risks as crucial to its success.

The Chevy Volt uses cathode battery material developed using Argonne's photon source in its car batteries, something he said the lab couldn’t have created without the freedom to take chances.

“The fact that scientists were able to be unfettered ultimately led to [the battery] being part of industry,” Isaacs said.

Durbin said he is hopeful the Senate will reject the House's bill when it votes this week. He urged the Senate to reach a bipartisan solution to the nation's deficit troubles that doesn't squander opportunities for U.S. innovation.

 Isaacs said he remains watchful but optimistic as he awaits the Senate's vote.

“We’re planning for the worst but hoping for something better," Isaacs said. “We know where the cuts would need to be made. We hope they do them in a more strategic way.”

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