Brookhaven National Laboratory's ion collider, the only remaining atom smasher in the nation, could close if Washington adopts recommendations from a panel evaluating scientific funding priorities in the face of potential federal budget cuts.

An advisory committee for the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation said Monday it was poised to issue a report ranking the Upton facility last among three laboratories vying for research funding. The panel made clear, however, that terminating any of the projects would be a "disaster" for nuclear science.

The Energy Department asked the committee for advice on making tough decisions in the event its future funding shrinks as lawmakers work to trim the federal deficit. The collider, which smashes infinitesimal particles at nearly the speed of light, has a budget of roughly $165 million, supporting about 800 jobs. It fell short to facilities in Michigan and Virginia.

Doon Gibbs, Brookhaven's interim director, said the committee based its recommendations on budgetary issues rather than scientific ones. He stressed the final outcome hinges on the federal budget.

"They made it clear that if the decision would be put to them in six months or 12 months from now, that they could potentially give a different answer," said Gibbs, who became interim director this month as the lab searches for a permanent leader to replace Sam Aronson.

The 2.4-mile collider ring, used to study matter's basic properties by recreating conditions from the dawn of the universe, has funding to continue operating for at least another year.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district includes the lab, said he is working with Gibbs and other Brookhaven officials to keep the collider operating.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"I have always fought hard to protect [Brookhaven] from destructive budget cuts, and I am working closely with lab officials to make the case that [the collider] should remain a top funding priority."