"Physics labs face fiscal fireworks"
December 29th, 2012
Atom smashers drill down into the recesses of the innermost regions of reality. But fiscal reality is that they cost money, and some may be casualties of the federal budget fight.
The recipe for an atom smasher requires physicists, their machines, atoms and money. And money, it turns out, is the hardest part of the ingredient list to solve.
As Congress squabbles over millionaires' tax rates this weekend, a quieter collision is playing out in one part of the U.S. scientific enterprise, three U.S. labs that look at the humblest element of the universe, the atom.
On Jan. 7, a Department of Energy advisory panel headed by Texas A&M physicist Robert Tribble will weigh in on the future of three facilities that right now are the reason the USA leads the world in nuclear physics research. Nuclear physicists seek to understand how the innards of atoms, such as protons and neutrons, interact with each other. The field is essential to nuclear power and nuclear weapons, as well as our basic understanding of nature.
Science fans likely know these labs from discoveries that re-created matter unseen since the Big Bang, or that probed the proton, the positively charged physics particles packed into the center of atoms. One lab shocked physicists in 2009 with the discovery that these goobers aren't perfectly round.
"Just as we are poised to reap the bounty of a tremendous investment in nuclear physics in research and technology, we are looking at shuttering facilities, which seems tremendously wasteful, in addition to the loss of U.S. leadership in this vital area of science," says Steven Vigdor of Brookhaven National Laboratory, which hosts one of the threatened labs, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). The others are the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in Newport News, Va., and Michigan State University's planned Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $615 million lab, which has already received $153 million from the Energy Department and $31 million from the university.
Now, the Tribble committee faces "projected constrained budgets," with federal budget cutbacks ahead, as the Energy Department and National Science Foundation put it in an organizational letter, meaning it essentially could decide the fate of the labs. The labs' futures were first mapped out in 2007 before the economic crash, along with the rest of the U.S. nuclear physics effort. That effort is largely funded by the Energy Department to the tune of about $550 million a year. (To put that in perspective, that is about one-tenth of the cost of one of 12 nuclear-armed SSBN-X subs that the Defense Department now has on its shopping list, despite the Cold War ending two decades ago.)
You may be surprised to learn there are any big U.S. atom smashers left at all, with Europe's CERN lab and its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) getting all the attention this year for its detection of a Higgs boson (better known as the "God particle" to the dismay of physicists). Once upon a time, U.S. leadership in high-energy physics was assured, too, before it was overtaken by CERN, but in 1993, President Clinton killed the gigantic atom smasher in Texas that almost undoubtedly would have found the "God particle" about a decade ago, if it had been built (it was partly the victim of another fight over the budget deficit).
As the Tribble committee heard at a September fact-gathering meeting, the U.S. labs are building on the findings at CERN. For example, RHIC smashes together the centers of gold atoms at nearly the speed of light to create "quark-gluon" plasma, a super-heated fluid of the sub-atomic particles normally hidden inside atoms, which represents how things looked in the billionths of a second after the universe started. RHIC and the other lab will sweep up behind the LHC's higher-energy Higgs boson results, plumbing interesting areas of nuclear physics suggested by its findings as well as exploring many still-mysterious facets of atomic behavior.
The shortfall in funding facing all three labs, and the rest of U.S. nuclear physics, is about $100 million total in 2013. (The overall shortfall adds up to about $900 million over five years from 2014 to 2018.) So far, it looks like one of the three labs won't be funded, Vigdor says. If the fiscal cliff "sequestration" of federal funds goes through next year, the Energy Department faces a 7.7% cut in funds, and perhaps two labs will be shut down. "That will likely end U.S. leadership in this area, which we have enjoyed since World War II," Vigdor says. Other nations, such as China and India, are making plans to expand such research, even as the U.S. cuts back. "Our leadership is being drained to other countries," he says.
Of course, things are tough all over. A White House report in September said that sequestration would trigger $417 million in cuts at NASA, $2.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $7.5 billion in Defense Department research. "Please do not turn away from your commitment to the scientific research our country so vitally needs," read a Dec. 18 letter from 21 Nobel Prize-winners to President Obama, decrying the planned NIH cuts. The letter noted that every dollar invested in research tends to pay off many times over, a finding that economists have made for decades. Atom smashers, as one example, have played a role in the development of lasers, the World Wide Web and nuclear medicine, which uses radioactive isotopes as medical tracing devices in diagnoses and surgeries.
One irony of the cuts coming to science is that the 2007 build-up of nuclear physics came as a result of congressional concern over a National Academy of Sciences report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The report trumpeted fears of the lost U.S. leadership in science and a resultant economic decline. So, the "Long-Range Plan" for U.S. nuclear science, just as in many other areas of research, made promises that look empty now with Washington's focus turned to cutting budgets.
"Everyone can understand the U.S. budget situation and the reality of the deficit," says Vigdor, who is retiring this week. "But all this is just a symptom of the poor budget planning of the U.S. government that has been going on for a long time." If lab bosses knew cuts were coming, Vigdor says, they could have planned things better, instead of facing the boom-and-bust spending that characterizes congressional decision-making.
The good news for the committee contemplating the future of U.S. atom smashers is that they are to submit two plans, one for flat funding (effectively a cut due to inflation) and one for slight growth in the budget for nuclear physics (effectively a flat line in funding for the same reason). By Jan. 7, when their report comes due, the fight over the fiscal cliff may have resolved enough to tell us which path the nation ends up following for the future of U.S. nuclear physics, and the rest of the scientific enterprise.