Six months of lobbying brought some success for the American physics community yesterday when President George W Bush signed a $186bn “supplemental” spending bill. The bill, which continues funding for military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, also includes $338m for government agencies that support science research.

The extra funds become available immediately and will go part of the way to compensating for severe cuts in funding for US physics that were announced last December. In particular, the new money could allow the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago to reverse a decision to lay off 140 staff. However, physicists think that serious problems with the US science budget remain.

Lay-offs reversed

The new legislation provides $62.5m apiece for the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science of the Department of Energy (DOE), and NASA. Although the DOE has yet to decide how it will spend the fresh funds, it is expected to give the bulk to the Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) in California. Since the funds apply to the current financial year, which ends on 30 September, they can permit the institutions to cancel or reverse layoffs planned as a result of last December’s budget.

Fermilab’s director Pier Oddone, who was in process of sacking 140 employees, has called a meeting of all his staff for tomorrow. “I expect to announce an end of involuntary layoffs at the laboratory,” he said.

We’re not anticipating that we would do a large rehiring at this point Lee Lyon, SLAC

SLAC, which laid off 125 people in April, is less certain of its course. “At this stage we don’t really know what will happen,” said spokesman Lee Lyon. “We’re not anticipating that we would do a large rehiring at this point. But as critical positions open up going forward, we would anticipate that people would be interested in reapplying.”

Analysts expect that any funds remaining after those efforts will support DOE’s fusion programmes. That should help the American contribution to the ITER project, support for which was cut to zero in the 2008 budget signed last December.

The supplemental is a good sign that Congress has recognized the importance of physical science and other science funding Kei Koizumi, AAAS

Physicists have reacted to the supplemental bill with less than unalloyed glee, seeing it more as a bandage than a cure. “While it’s not as great as it could have been for physics, the supplemental is a good sign that Congress has recognized the importance of physical science and other science funding,” said Kei Koizumi, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

I’m disappointed that there isn’t more funding for the basic energy science facilities at DOE Arthur Bienenstock, American Physical Society

Stanford University physicist Arthur Bienenstock, this year’s president of the American Physical Society (APS), takes a more sceptical view. “I’m very pleased that we will be able to retain some of the extreme capabilities in science and technology at Fermilab and SLAC,” he said. “But I’m disappointed that there isn’t more funding for the basic energy science facilities at DOE.”

Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York and APS director of public affairs, also points out that three key issues that physicists raised last December with budget makers remain “largely unaddressed”. These are cuts in funding for particle physics, the lack of support for national facilities, and the damage to America’s credibility as an international partner because of the decision to cut funds for ITER.

“Unless these issues are addressed some time in the next six months, the country will pay a heavy penalty,” said Lubell, who plans to continue lobbying over the 2009 budget.