by Whit Gibbons

February 20, 2005

The University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) has been cited in the “Guinness Book of World Records.” It has been recognized by the Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the top ecology laboratories in the world. And it is home to the only American alligator whose photograph has appeared in “USA Today” and on Fox News.

Last week it received a different, and decidedly unwelcome, kind of attention. If the president’s budget is approved by Congress as written, federal funding for SREL would be eliminated, effectively shutting down the research facility.

Although SREL’s baseline funding comes from the Department of Energy (DOE), it is not a DOE national research laboratory, such as the one at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is an independent research lab that is part of the University of Georgia. This arrangement has been in effect since SREL was established in 1951 under the auspices of DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

For more than half a century SREL has trained students in ecology, conducted environmental studies, and served the community and the region through education and outreach programs in all areas of science. It has garnered an international reputation for research in radiation ecology, wetlands and wildlife conservation, and environmental chemistry. And it has done all this with what, in the greater scheme of federal outlay, is a very small budget. In this case, less than $8 million a year.

To give you an idea of funding typically provided by the Department of Energy for its national research laboratories, Oak Ridge is supported to the financial tune of several hundred million dollars a year. The DOE budget for SREL is less than $8 million. Here’s another way to look at it in terms of the total federal budget. If spending of the president's proposed budget of $2.5 trillion were distributed equally over a year, $8 million would be spent in less than two minutes! Cutting off funding for a two-minute lab is not going to go a long way toward balancing the budget. And SREL’s cost-benefit ratio is unimpeachable.

The Guinness record mentioned above is for the "longest running amphibian study in the world," a project supported by DOE in which scientific data have been taken on more than a million frogs and salamanders since 1978. The SREL amphibian program continues to be crucial in addressing problems associated with the global decline of amphibians. The above-mentioned alligator is now more than 12 feet long. He has been seen in the flesh by thousands of visitors to the lab and on TV or in the newspaper by millions. The giant alligator's mate, and the many alligator babies they produce each year, which are symbolic of the wildlife studies conducted by SREL scientists on the Savannah River Site, are used as hands-on learning tools to explain ecological principles to youngsters and adults.

In the mid-1990s Encyclopedia Britannica recognized SREL as a premier ecological laboratory in a worldwide review of scientific laboratories. In a feature article, Britannica indicated that one reason for SREL's success is that numerous long-term environmental studies depend "to a great extent on the protected status of the [Savannah River] site and the Department of Energy's long-term commitment to environmental research."

Why would DOE consider ending that long-term commitment to environmental research? No one seems to be quite sure why the relatively small budget to support a relatively small, yet internationally renowned, facility would be targeted for closure. Nonetheless, that is what will happen if Congress accepts the Department of Energy budget as presented.

Singling out an operation as small as SREL is odd, if not downright puzzling. Having the government maintain an independent research laboratory like SREL seems particularly critical these days, when environmental oversight of government facilities is recognized as an important mission.

Spending two minutes’ worth of the annual budget on a research ecology lab in South Carolina will ensure the continuation of environmental research, training, and education and outreach programs that have proven to be effective and cost-efficient. That two-minute lab is a national bargain worth keeping.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)