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Richter delivers "State of SLAC" address

In his annual "State of SLAC" address Nov. 11, Burton Richter, the director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), painted a positive picture with a number of high points and important accomplishments. But the news that most concerned center employees was the likelihood of another round of layoffs in the coming year.

Although the fiscal year 1997 budget is not yet final, Richter reported that it appears likely that the center will face another year of budget cuts, forcing it to lay off about 50 permanent employees from its staff of about 1,350.

SLAC, which is funded by the Department of Energy, is coming off a major construction project for a new particle accelerator, called the Asymmetric B-Factory. In 1997 SLAC spent $40 million on its construction. This year the construction funding is down to $7 million and next year it will have dropped to zero. "The operations budget will ramp up after that, but it will not match the peak rate of construction," Richter told an audience of several hundred SLAC employees.

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, a division of SLAC that produces high-intensity X-rays for a number of different scientific studies also is slated for a decrease, but the facility got such high marks in an Energy Department review that the agency is looking for additional funds to support its operations. "It's uncertain whether we'll get more money this fiscal year, but SSRL will certainly get more next year," Richter said.

If the cutbacks remain at the current level, they will force the layoff of about 50 permanent staff members, mostly from the High Energy Physics Technical and Research Divisions. That is in addition to about 80 temporary and fixed term workers who were hired specifically for the B-Factory construction and whose jobs will end during the next year.

"This is the third year in a row that we've had to go through this unpleasant experience, but this might be the last time," Richter said. Admitting that he might be overly optimistic, he pointed to a bipartisan bill that calls for doubling the federal science budget over the next 10 years that is gaining support in the Senate, and to a recent statement by House speaker Newt Gingrich saying that he would support increases in science spending.

Currently the biggest problem is with the Clinton administration, Richter said. "Many people, including me, will try to get the administration to focus on this before January when the final budget is released," he emphasized.

At the same time, the scientist-director had a number of positive developments to report. The number of scientists using both the high-energy particle physics facilities and SSRL is rising. Work on the B-Factory is progressing on or ahead of schedule. When completed in 1999, the specially constructed particle accelerator is designed to shed new light on the relationship between matter and anti-matter, its electrical mirror image. Meanwhile, the existing linear accelerator is setting new records on what may be its final run. An experiment conducted there that produced matter directly out of light, as predicted by Einstein, caused considerable excitement in the news media. "Any media excitement is good," Richter said.

SLAC's first venture into outer space ­ a gamma-ray orbiting telescope called GLAST ­ is currently on hold, awaiting a decision by the Department of Energy. NASA has given it a high priority on its list of future projects. Meanwhile, progress on a giant, international multi-billion dollar collider, the Next Linear Collider, is moving rapidly ahead. SLAC is a major architect of this machine, so, if construction begins on it in the year 2003 as Richter hopes, SLAC will play a major role in SLAC's future.

Meanwhile, SSRL continues to attract new scientific users and pioneer in new ways to use the high-level X-rays that were once unwanted byproducts produced by particle accelerators.

Originally, scientists thought these X-rays would be of most use to physicists studying the structure of various materials. But last year the largest number of SSRL customers were structural biologists. Synchrotron X-rays can provide detailed information about the structure of complex biological molecules that cannot be obtained from any other fashion. Synchrotron radiation, for example, was used to determine the structure of the protease molecule that the HIV virus uses to penetrate cells, providing a basis for the development of protease inhibitors. Similar work is now going on at SSRL studying the manner in which cholera toxin attaches to cell membranes, in hopes that this will lead to the development of drugs to prevent this invasion.

The fastest-growing research area at SSRL is environmental science. The intense X-ray radiation allows scientists to study toxic contaminants in extremely low concentrations and to determine what chemical state they are in, a factor that can have considerable effect on their toxicity, mobility and other important characteristics.

SSRL scored extremely well in a high-level review of synchrotron science conducted by the Department of Energy last spring. The panel characterized SSRL as "continuously evolving and improving" and unique in having its users "remarkably and astoundingly happy." The panel recommended that the SSRL and a similar center at Brookhaven National Laboratory be given the funds to substantially upgrade their facilities.

Richter had some positive news to report on the safety front as well. SLAC has had one of the higher accident rates among the national labs. Although the national labs have better safety records than industry, Richter had set a goal of reducing the accident rate by 20 percent per year until SLAC has one of the lowest accident rates among all the national labs. They have achieved this goal in the current year, he reported.

To help with this effort SLAC officials brought in outside experts to review their Environmental Safety and Health Program. Although the review found that SLAC generally had a good safety program, they made a number of specific recommendations, including a shift in the basic thrust of the safety program from what management can do to improve safety to what each individual worker can do. To help achieve this goal, SLAC managers have coined the slogan: Do it safe; do it right; do it fast.

"My personal goal, and I don't know if this is possible, is to make it as safe to work here as it is to work in a bank," Richter said.


By David F. Salisbury

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