Issue Date: May 16, 2011
NUFO Gains A Voice
Much like a person, the National User Facility Organization (NUFO) is coming of age at the 21-year mark. The independent organization, which represents more than 30,000 users of 39 federally funded research facilities, has grown from a group focused solely on internal administrative activities to one that also advocates for scientists and performs public outreach.
The development of NUFO’s more unified voice for the needs and interests of the scientists who rely on these federal resources, which are the largest research facilities in the U.S., has been happening over the past two to three years. It comes at an opportune point as Congress is tightening its purse strings. This situation puts NUFO in a unique position.
“In times when there is a lot of stress on the budgets and priorities are being set,” NUFO can play an important role beyond just helping the facilities run better, explains Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Specifically, the group can make sure the government understands the importance of these facilities to the U.S.
Because NUFO addresses the needs of users, its independence from the facilities is an important attribute, says Samuel Aronson, director of Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL). It gives voice to users’ need for continuous access to federal research facilities, something that “a group of lab directors can’t do without seeming like self-promoters,” he says.
Founded in 1990, NUFO initially started as a coalition of user groups at synchrotrons and dealt only with administrative work, such as proprietary data handling and visa procedures for foreign scientists. Today, the organization has expanded to include users at all federal facilities, such as BNL, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and helps them establish administrative procedures and rules that are consistent across all of the facilities. Users come mostly from academic institutions, but private companies, like Eli Lilly & Co. and Honeywell’s UOP business, pay to access these facilities because they cannot set up similar large-scale instrumentation within their companies.
The facilities represented by NUFO are “the crown jewels of the U.S.,” says Simon Bare, a chemist at UOP and a representative of industrial users on the NUFO Steering Committee. Bare uses various facilities for his research on petroleum catalysts. “As a whole, there is no other country that has the breadth and depth of scientific capabilities that are enabled by these facilities.”
Likewise, Stephen Wasserman, director of translational science and technologies at Lilly, notes that the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at ANL is essential to study pharmaceutical products the company has in its R&D pipeline. He says the government’s investments in large-scale and very expensive instruments and their infrastructure allow companies like his to make scientific, engineering, and medical advances.
For example, Wasserman points out, “We have six compounds currently in Phase I and Phase II clinical trials whose development was affected by experiments at the APS.” By supporting these facilities and making them available to outside users, “the government provides a way for us to innovate,” he says.
In the past few years, NUFO has taken on a second goal of outreach, which has been rapidly gaining steam. The NUFO Steering Committee recognized that because it represents tens of thousands of users, the organization can be a powerful force for keeping Congress and the public informed of the science being conducted at the user facilities. This is particularly important as Congress sets the funding—mostly through the Department of Energy’s Office of Science—that keeps user facilities up and running.
“We have facilities in 17 states, but there are 600 universities that send users to these facilities. That means we have universities in each state and almost in each congressional district in the country,” says Rene Bellwied, who is the chair of the NUFO steering committee and a physics professor at the University of Houston. Bellwied explains that NUFO puts together packages for scientists to take along when they speak to their congressional representatives to advocate for the science they do at these facilities.
Getting out the message of just how important the work done at these user facilities is has taken on a degree of urgency as various spending bills for fiscal 2011 were proposed earlier this year and debated in Congress, Bellwied explains. One spending bill in particular was distressing for scientists. The measure, which was passed by the House of Representatives in mid-February but later rejected by the Senate, threatened to shut down some of the facilities.
Bellwied says that if that spending bill had been implemented, the effects on users would have been devastating. Shutdowns would have put on hold the research of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students signed up to use these federal facilities for the remainder of the fiscal year, and they would have had to reapply to get time again on instruments when the facilities resumed operations in October. And industrial users would either have had to put their work on hold or go abroad to do their time-sensitive experiments. For Lilly, Wasserman says, the turmoil would have slowed the pace of research and affected the speed at which new pharmaceuticals are developed.
Fortunately, the fiscal 2011 budget ultimately approved by Congress contains cuts that are not as drastic as originally proposed. In the fiscal 2011 budget that President Barack Obama signed in mid-April, the DOE Office of Science—which funds 34 of the 39 facilities involved in NUFO—is set to receive $61 million less than it received in the fiscal 2010 budget. But because the fiscal 2010 appropriation included $76.9 million for congressionally directed projects—or earmarks—whereas the fiscal 2011 appropriation doesn’t have any directed projects, the Office of Science may be coming out ahead by $15.9 million. Details of how exactly the Office of Science is going to allocate this money, however, were not available by C&EN’s press time.
With user facility funding apparently spared this year, the fight for the fiscal 2012 budget is now getting under way. NUFO members want to continue to remind lawmakers that the federal facilities are critical to the U.S.’s ability to remain on the cutting edge of science and technology.
The U.S. was the first country to set up large-scale scientific facilities and currently is the best equipped in the world with an infrastructure of large-scale instruments, Mason notes. But, he warns, other countries are starting to make significant investments in large-scale instruments because of their importance to research and national competitiveness.
“We can’t afford to be complacent,” Mason states. Policymakers have to understand that the U.S. facilities should stay on the forefront in their operations and continue to improve. “Hopefully NUFO will be one way to articulate” that national need, he says.
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