Cornell's synchrotron narrowly escapes budget knife

Jun 19, 2012

Running underground beneath the athletic fields at Cornell University is a particle accelerator known as the synchrotron.

It's been there since 1978. It's basically a very high-powered x-ray.

Here's how the lab's associate director, Don Bilderback, describes what it does:

"An accelerating particle, when it's bent in a magnetic field, gives off very intense x-ray beams. But we want to make them more precise and better able to do nanoscience and peer into objects like viruses and look at surfaces down at the atomic resolution scale."

According to Bilderback, there are a bunch of uses for the synchrotron, things like material sciences, battery technology - even looking at the hidden layers in centuries-old paintings.

And all that came pretty close to shutting down this year.

According to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the National Science Foundation (NSF) was going to move funding for the lab, also known as the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, or CHESS, over to the Department of Energy.

"Some of the bureaucrats inside the NSF were beginning to think that funding light sources wasn't their job anymore," said Schumer during a Monday press conference at Cornell.

The other four light source labs like this one are run by the Department of Energy. This is the only one at a research institution. Schumer says that means it can support many more types of research than a government-run facility can.

The lab receives $28 million in funding every year from the NSF.

If the NSF had taken the lab off its books and moved it over to the Department of Energy, Schumer says it would have certainly meant the lab would lose its funding.

"It wasn't just a letter or a phone call, it was too important for that," Schumer said of his efforts to restore funding.

The agreement keeps the lab open at least until the NSF reviews it again, which happens every few years.