National science labs might get designation

Scientists at Savannah River Site and six other U.S. Energy Department facilities are watching legislation that could provide as much as $25 million for environmental research projects over five years.

H.R. 2729, introduced in June by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., would designate the seven National Environmental Research Parks at DOE sites as permanent outdoor research reserves for the purposes of studying the effect of human activities on the natural environment.

"The funding, if it comes, would come to the Savannah River Site NERP and then be redistributed to the various organizations that conduct the research," said Ken McLeod, a co-director of the Savannah River Ecology Lab, which is a major player in the site's environmental research programs.

SRS was the first national research park, designated in 1972. Others are Hanford, Los Alamos, Fermilab, Oak Ridge, Idaho and Nevada.

The bill, which has passed the House and now sits in a Senate subcommittee, provides as much as $5 million per year for five years for each of the research parks, Dr. McLeod said.

"The way the bill presently reads, it has to go to a university or a consortium of universities, which is exactly how we are funded at the moment," he said. "But there are lots of other similar groups."

Savannah River National Laboratory, the U.S. Forest Service and others would also compete for the funds.

The measure is an authorization bill, not an appropriations bill, which means its passage would require additional actions to provide funding.

"If it were to pass, somehow it would have to be funded by a separate appropriations bill," Dr. McLeod said.

The ecology lab, a part of the University of Georgia, has lost much of its funding in recent years and relies more on individual research grants instead of its traditional core funding.

Its staff is about 50, down from more than 200 in previous years.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.