About one-third of the employees working under a U.S. Department of Energy contract at the university’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory have been notified that their positions will end Sept. 30, 2005, due to a reduction in the federal grant that funds much of the facility.
During the budget development process, the federal administration proposed eliminating $7.748 million in federal funding for the facility, operated by UGA since 1951.
Through the cooperative efforts of members of the Georgia and South Carolina congressional delegations, the federal grant will not be eliminated entirely for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, but instead will be reduced to $4.3 million (including $300,000 from the National Nuclear Security Administration, funding which SREL also received in fiscal year ’05). This is a budget reduction of 47 percent.
Officials hope alternate funding sources-in the form of contracts and grants from the Department of Energy and other agencies-may be secured to replace at least some of the funding. “SREL will need to downsize and develop areas of focus commensurate with federal grant funding priorities,” says Vice President for Research Gordhan Patel, to whom SREL reports. “In addition, SREL will need to enhance partnerships with other state, federal and private entities.”
SREL’s primary purpose is to provide an independent assessment of environmental impacts of the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile DOE facility in western South Carolina that once produced nuclear materials.
Although it is a 54-year-old arrangement, SREL funding has always been so-called “soft money”-a grant subject to renewal. The current five-year contract between the DOE and UGA was signed in 2001 and expires June 30, 2006. But the federal funding reduction is effective Oct. 1, 2005, and thus the laboratory will not have funding to operate at its previous capacity beyond that date.
Of 180 employees at SREL, 150 positions are funded by the Department of Energy grant. The reduction eliminates 51 of those occupied. Some of those 41 will accept early retirement, shift to part-time employment, or find other jobs and resign, but those remaining will face involuntary separation.
“Five of the positions are occupied by tenured faculty members of the University of Georgia, and we have made arrangements for them to be transferred to teaching and research positions,” says Arnett C. Mace Jr., senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. Mace says funding was set aside in the university’s fiscal year ’06 budget to pick up those tenured positions in anticipation of the SREL grant reduction.
“Positions funded from contracts and grants, which are considered ‘soft funds,’ are subject to termination when the contract or grant ends,” says Duane Ritter, interim director of human resources. “While this program has been in existence 54 years, the principle is the same.”
“From its inception, SREL has been a UGA research unit recognized for its effectiveness in conducting independent research on the impacts of Savannah River Site operations,” says Paul M. Bertsch, SREL director. “It has been an independent and credible source of information on environmental issues relating to nuclear materials production and processing, and is known world-wide as a leading ecological and environmental laboratory. We are so sorry to see these fine staff members lose their positions, but if the federal grant must end, we are grateful that our congressional delegations have seen fit to give us a year to develop alternative funding sources.”