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Keeping the Lights On

The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) is known as the birthplace of many of the innovations that have made synchrotron X-ray methods such important analytical tools. It is one of four Department of Energy (DOE)-funded synchrotron radiation facilities that provide X-rays for a wide range of researchers from academia, industry and other national laboratories. The FY 2018 Congressional Budget request (1) contained a substantial reduction for the DOE. DOE’s response was to cut the proposed SSRL budget in half, and put the facility in what was called a “warm standby” mode from January 2018. Since most of the cost of running SSRL is salaries for the employees, it seems very likely that SSRL would never have reopened. Fortunately for SSRL, the budget did not pass and the facility will remain open next year. But the FY 2019 budget is being built along the same lines as the FY 2018 budget, and next spring SSRL may be in jeopardy again.

The DOE has an extraordinary legacy of support for research in general and for synchrotron facilities in particular, setting the bar for all such facilities worldwide. SSRL has a vital place in the DOE team of synchrotron radiation laboratories, specializing in X-ray spectroscopy and macromolecular crystallography with access to the hard X-ray regime. Other laboratories specialize in different X-ray energies and in methods that require very small X-ray beams. SSRL is the smallest of the four DOE synchrotron radiation laboratories, but it produces the highest proportion of what DOE calls high-impact papers, which in 2016 was 24 percent of all papers from SSRL. It also provides some unique advanced spectroscopy capabilities. For example: it has the only multicrystal spectrometer array optimized for high-resolution X-ray absorption spectroscopy in the USA; the only tender X-ray emission spectrometer in the USA, which is also the only solution-compatible spectrometer of this type in the world; the only high-solid-angle Raman spectrometer optimized for soft X-ray absorption spectroscopy in the USA; and the only transition edge sensor array detector for soft X-ray spectroscopy in the world. Remote access for protein crystallography experiments had its origins at SSRL, as did many other advanced capabilities. SSRL is streamlined and efficient, and is known for its flexibility and as a can-do facility that enables users’ science as a priority. It produces more than 90 percent of the science that comes out of the larger SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory – despite having less than 10 percent of the employees of SLAC overall. SLAC is home to the world’s first free-electron X-ray laser source, the linear coherent light source (LCLS), a coherent femtosecond pulsed source of staggering brightness that has potential impacts across many fields of science. Many of the new detector technologies needed for LCLS have been developed in collaboration with SSRL, and should SSRL close, many think that LCLS and SLAC will follow.

The links between SSRL and other DOE-funded laboratories, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), are especially strong, and very important to the nation from the perspectives of national security, energy and environmental cleanup. SSRL’s closure would mean loss of capability for LANL and LLNL, directly undermining core aspects of DOE’s mission.

Industrial research, such as petrochemical and new catalyst technology is also a growth area at SSRL. It is important to emphasize that SSRL and the other DOE-funded national laboratories do not engage in corporate welfare; they provide facilities to industrial and academic scientists alike that are well outside the normal scope and capability of industry or university.

SSRL has benefited from years of  outstanding leadership, and it is this, combined with talented staff and world-class facilities, that sets SSRL apart, positioning it as a crucial facility for (analytical) science. It is an especially nimble facility, able to respond quickly to new and innovative requests from users, which springs from a pervasive culture of collegiality and less compartmentalization than happens at larger facilities. Its success is confirmed by a consistently high level of satisfaction from its users.

A Heritage Foundation report (2) recommends that the DOE should refocus “on maintaining America’s nuclear weapons deterrent and managing the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex; limiting science spending to government needs and basic research while encouraging more flexibility and responsibility at America’s national laboratories”. SSRL’s closure would be in direct opposition to these recommendations. DOE’s response to the FY 2019 budget should not be to close SSRL; whether for industry, healthcare or national security, the loss of SSRL would have a substantial impact on research in the US and beyond. In short – I believe it would be a disaster.

Graham George is a U.S. Citizen, currently living and working in Canada.

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  1. Department of Energy, “FY 2018 Congressional Budget Request: Science” (2017). Available at: bit.ly/2BGKVeI. Accessed December 4, 2017.
  2. K. Tubb et al., “The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, DOE Reset: Focus the
  3. Department of Energy on Core Missions and Decrease Distractions”, (2017). Available at: bit.ly/2BGKVeI. Accessed December 4, 2017.
About the Author
Graham George

Graham George is Canada Research Chair in X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

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