UW-Madison Physics Lab To Close After Losing Federal Funds

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UW-Madison Physics Lab To Close After Losing Federal Funds

Premiere Date: 
February 28, 2014

Joseph Bisognano, director of the Synchrotron Radiation Center, discusses the closing.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

A week from today, a world renounced UW-Madison physics lab will shut down. Federal budget cuts are to blame for putting the Synchrotron Radiation Center out of business, business that for 30 years has placed research there at the cutting edge of science. We talked with the center's director, Joseph Bisognano, about the closing on our set a week ago asking whether research has been vital right up until the end.

Joseph Bisognano:

It really is. We have six user groups right now doing experiments at the facility. One group's from England. They wanted their last chance to use it. Another is from China. So it's very much alive and running very well.

Frederica Freyberg:

Then why is it closing?

Joseph Bisognano:

It's those-- federal funding has gotten smaller. It's shrinking with the federal budget and NSF had to make some hard decisions. Unfortunately I think they made the wrong decision.

Frederica Freyberg:

That's the National Science Foundation?

Joseph Bisognano:

That’s the National Science Foundation.

Frederica Freyberg:

That's where you get your grant funding from?

Joseph Bisognano:

Yeah, it's been funded for a couple decades by the National Science Foundation, a budget of about $5 million a year.

Frederica Freyberg:

So what kinds of work and research has been done there that you could tell us about that is notable?

Joseph Bisognano:

Well, for example, there was a lot of studies in magnetic materials. These are the magnetic materials they make hard drives out of. The reason that hard drives have gone from something they used to measure in megabits to now terabytes is because of the kind of research we did at the Synchrotron over the last decades. Now we have an infrared beam line that can do three-dimensional imaging of cells while also seeing what the chemicals are inside a cell. And that's going to lead, or would have led, to big advances.

Frederica Freyberg:

So are these projects here unique to this center?   

Joseph Bisognano:

Very much-- a number of them are. There's only one other facility in the country that can do similar research that we do. There's one in California, and that’s fully subscribed also. So a lot of the work will be lost. The infrared beam line, in particular, is the best in the world. It just came on the air in the past couple years. There's lots of excitement. As I say, there's people from all around the world coming to it.

Frederica Freyberg:

How disturbing is this then for scientists like yourself and others across the world that this center is going to be mothballed?

Joseph Bisognano:

Well, the user community is very, very upset about it, and they've tried and tried to talk to NSF about restoring some funding for the facility. But they're getting nowhere. All we hear is that there's no money.

Frederica Freyberg::

So why do you think these kinds of choices are made? You know, to take a center that you describe as vital, doing important, unique work, attracting scientists from across the globe to it. $5 million described by yourself as not huge amount of money. Why that kind of decision?

Joseph Bisognano:

It's hard to say. I think the agency clearly had a budget shortfall and then they have to find some way of doing it. But our reviews-- usually you have committees come through every five years to look at your program to make sure it's still healthy. And our reviews were wonderful. And we got the first phone call from our program manager at the National Science Foundation. He said your reviews are wonderful. We're shutting you down. Okay? And another review committee said it would be a terrible mistake to shut us down. All I can figure is that we were of the right size that would make some mark on the NSF budget that they could say we are shutting down some facilities with a budget of $5 million a year. But we're small enough that it wouldn't make big political repercussions. If we were $50 million a year with 500 employees, then they would have heard about it.

Frederica Freyberg:

We spoke to director Bisognano last week. He will continue on as professor of engineering physics. In all some 35 people worked at the lab before it started winding down. Specialized equipment there will be sold off. 


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