Budget uncertainty topic of all-hands meeting

Budget uncertainty brought on by Congress' running battle over the possible sequestration and the fiscal cliff was the focus of an all hands meeting Jan. 11. Lab Director Alex King discussed potential scenarios and impacts on the Ames Lab.

"We simply don't know what's going to happen but I feel a whole lot better about it than I did on Monday before we found out about the (CMI) Hub proposal," King said. "We're not even allowed to plan for it, DOE hasn't told us what their plans are and in fact, the White House has told federal agencies not to make plans and certainly not to announce plans. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take a look at what we can do now to try and make the eventual impact as painless as possible.”

According to King, some estimates would put the automatic budget cuts for federal science programs at 11 percent, compared to a 7.8 percent overall cut. The difference is because some program areas cannot be cut, so deeper cuts are required in other areas.

“We don’t know if the automatic (sequestration) cuts will be replaced with negotiated cuts,” he said. “We do not know whether the alternative will be better or worse for us than the across the board cuts. We hope they’ll be better … the President in the past has said he sees science as an economic investment. But it’s not clear whether science will be protected.”

It’s also unclear how DOE will handle any cuts, he said. Pay freezes, travel freezes, hiring freezes, as well as furloughs are possible but there has been no discussion. It’s unknown whether DOE would make targeted cuts or consider the strength of programs before swinging the budget ax.

“Based on our most recent report card, we are one of the stronger programs,” King said. “We’re the third or fourth highest lab based on our scientific performance. They are hearing loud and clear from the lab directors that we can manage our money better than they can manage our money.”

Short of implementing a plan, King asked Lab staff to be cognizant of spending, particularly in the area of travel and utility costs. While travel is essential in many cases, the number of people from a particular group could be reduced. The greater use of teleconferencing was also suggested as another way to reduce travel expenditures.

“Our utility usage as a percentage of our total budget is also high in comparison to other labs,” King pointed out. “So make sure that fume hoods are in setback mode whenever possible.”

Staff can also review refrigerator use and go with the smallest unit reasonable to address needs. Coffee pots, lights and computer equipment should also be monitored closely to reduce energy usage.

Through several graphs, King showed how reducing or delaying expenditures now can dramatically affect the Lab’s ability to cover cuts that may occur later in the fiscal year. With a shorter amount of time over which to spread the cuts, the impact of such cuts is deeper, so a dollar saved now can in effect help offset a two or three dollar cut in the future.

“The less we spend now, the more it helps us to be able to cover potential cuts down the road,” he said.