ONE-MINUTE ECOLOGY LAB IS WORTH KEEPING
by Whit Gibbons
May 6, 2007
of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) has a “Guinness
Book of World Records” award, has been recognized by the Encyclopedia
Britannica as one of the top ecology laboratories in the world, and 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. Someone
in Washington has decided that federal funding for SREL will be terminated,
effectively shutting down the research facility. One official stated that
SREL had become "too visible." Indeed, SREL has garnered an
international reputation for research in radiation ecology, wetlands and
wildlife conservation, and environmental chemistry. And it provides uncensored
reporting of environmental findings in scientific journals. Is that what
is meant by “too visible”?
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. The SREL’s status as an independent research lab has
been in effect since the lab was established in 1951 under the auspices
of the Atomic Energy Commission.
One of SREL's
ongoing roles has been as watchdog over activities that put radiation
and toxic chemicals into the environment. Effective oversight can only
be done credibly by an autonomous, nonprofit, nongovernment program. Most
people welcome such oversight. But those who would keep the public in
the dark do not like unfettered reporting.
than half a century SREL has also trained students in ecology, conducted
environmental studies, and served the community and the region through
education and outreach programs in all areas of science. And it has done
all this with a very small annual budget. This year it would be less than
sounds like a lot, consider the amount in terms of the total federal budget.
If disbursement of our $2.9 trillion national budget were distributed
equally over a year, $5 million would be spent in less than one minute!
Cutting off funding for a one-minute lab will not 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 and environmentally caused
alligator is now more than 12 feet long. He has been seen in the flesh
by thousands of visitors to the lab and by millions on TV or in the newspaper.
The giant alligator and his mate produce several baby alligators each
year. The young alligators 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 commended SREL's internationally acclaimed ecological studies
that depend "to a great extent on . . . the Department of Energy's
long-term commitment to environmental research." That commitment
appears to be waning.
DOE consider ending that decades-long commitment to environmental research?
Why would the relatively small budget to support a small, yet internationally
renowned, facility be targeted for closure? No answer to those questions
is forthcoming from the decision-makers.
one minute's worth of the annual budget on a research ecology lab in South
Carolina will ensure the continuation of environmental research, training,
and education programs that have proven to be effective and cost efficient.
And here’s another thought: If that one-minute lab leaves the Savannah
River Site, five nuclear reactors and their half century of by-products
will still be there-without an independent research laboratory to provide
training, education outreach, conservation, environmental oversight. Those
are some of the benefits offered by SREL, at the cost of a minute’s
worth of the federal budget. SREL is a national bargain worth keeping.
And if it’s “too visible” to suit some people, maybe
that’s one more reason to keep it intact.
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