TWO-MINUTE ECOLOGY LAB IS WORTH KEEPING
by Whit Gibbons
February 20, 2005
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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