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Energy Department’s national labs plan major staff cuts by end of year

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The Department of Energy approved plans to reduce the workforce of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Brookhaven National Laboratory by as many as 525 positions. Both labs maintain the planned staffing cuts are not related to the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to DOE’s science programs.

The labs’ explanations for the staffing reductions, though, have not eased worries among researchers who question whether the job cuts represent the first of many to come at other national labs as DOE feels pressure from the Trump administration to cut costs. Employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior also have been put on notice about looming staff reductions.

These agencies are home to a large number of scientists who are part of a community that has expressed serious concerns with President Donald Trump’s views on science, especially his statements on climate change that reject mainstream scientific consensus. Two weeks ago, DOE’s official press account tweeted a message that stated: “In the fight between Secretary [Rick] Perry and climate scientists — He’s winning.”

Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request proposed deep cuts to most federal science agencies as part of a government-wide reduction in non-defense spending. Among the proposals was a 17 percent, or $919 million, cut below the fiscal year 2017 enacted level for DOE’s Office of Science, the nation’s largest sponsor of the physical sciences and the steward of 10 of DOE’s 17 national laboratories. Both Oak Ridge and Brookhaven fall under DOE’s Office of Science.

Oak Ridge’s leadership emphasized it is working to ensure the lab’s position “as one of the world’s premier research institutions.” But cutting costs at the lab is part of being “a good steward of taxpayer funding,” Oak Ridge Director Thomas Zacharia told staffers in a Tuesday email.

Oak Ridge plans to reduce its staff by 350 positions by the end of the year. “Sustaining our work effectively and efficiently requires the most difficult of decisions, which is to reduce our staff in certain areas of the lab,” Zacharia said.

Among the staff reductions will be research staff who have been affected by fiscal year 2017 budget reductions, the lab said. Oak Ridge, widely known as a pioneer nuclear energy research, is DOE’s largest multiprogram science and energy laboratory. It currently has about 4,800 employees

Layoffs may be necessary if too few staff leave under Oak Ridge’s voluntary separation program, lab spokesperson Morgan McCorkle said in an email. However, the lab’s experience with “voluntary separation programs” indicates it will likely produce the majority of staff separations needed.

McCorkle also emphasized that the staff reduction are not about Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget. “The reduction in staff, as well as other efforts to streamline operations, will allow [Oak Ridge] to maintain a competitive cost of doing business while freeing resources for discretionary investments in core scientific and technical capabilities at the lab,” McCorkle said.

Brookhaven, located on Long Island in New York, said it is implementing a “voluntary reduction in force” over the next couple of months and is looking for 175 volunteers as part of the program. As with Oak Ridge, the workforce reduction is not related to Trump’s proposed budget, Brookhaven spokesperson Peter Genzer said. The lab has a current staff level of about 2,700 employees.

All eligible employees who are approved will receive a severance package based on their years of service, plus benefits. After that, there could be layoffs. The last time Brookhaven implemented a staff reduction was in 2015 when 70 employees volunteered to accept a severance package, Genzer said.

Brookhaven specializes in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security.

Staffers at other federal agencies also are facing potential layoffs. The Trump administration, in its 2018 budget proposal, proposed a 31 percent cut to the the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget. The agency plans to make proposed staff cuts through attrition and buyouts, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said at a congressional hearing. About 20 percent of the agency’s staff is eligible for retirement today, he added.

The EPA kicked off a buyout program to reduce staffs numbers, according to an internal memo reported by Reuters in June. EPA officials wrote in the memo that they were setting aside $12 million for employee buyouts as part of a workforce restructuring proposal.

The Department of the Interior has proposed cutting at least 4,000 employee, or 8 percent of the department’s full-time workforce. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the department would rely on a combination of attrition, reassignments and buyouts to make the cuts.

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