by Whit Gibbons

May 6, 2007

The University 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.

This year 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”?

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. 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.

For more 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 $5 million.

If that 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.

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 and environmentally caused mutations.

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 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.

Why would 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.

Spending 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 environmental oversight.

Research, 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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