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FYI Number 123: November 11, 2002

Nuclear Science Advisory Committee Meets

The Director of DOE's Office of Science (OS), Ray Orbach, spoke recently at the meetings of several physics-related advisory committees. On November 1, he spoke at a gathering of the joint DOE-NSF Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC). As he has done on other occasions, Orbach talked about his office's preparation of a series of "occasional papers" to bring visibility to important S&T issues for his office. He also discussed his preparation of a long-term strategic plan for OS, and the impacts of 10 years of virtually flat budgets on the office. The pressure on both laboratory and university physics programs is "almost unbearable," Orbach said to the NSAC members. The achievements of the nuclear physics programs are "more impressive" in that context, he stated.

In addition to the occasional papers already completed, Orbach is seeking NSAC's assistance on several forthcoming ones. The first would be an initiative in accelerator science and engineering, to address the lack of new initiatives and difficulty in keeping teams together from project to project. Universities would be encouraged to offer curricula in this field, while OS would provide support through research funding and graduate student fellowships, to create what Orbach termed "a more steady state of opportunities" in this area.

A second initiative would address international collaboration on large science projects. "To my knowledge, there has not been a successful international project in the construction and operation of a large-scale facility," Orbach commented, citing the failure of the SSC and the difficulties with the LHC budget during construction. ITER "may be the first example of a truly international project," he noted, but he has already determined that the European cost estimate of $4 billion is about $1 billion too low because it is based on 1990 dollars. If countries can understand, and translate between, each others' pricing structures and program management and "establish credibility" in these areas, he said, "we can get those off the table" and address the scientific opportunities.

Orbach is also starting to look across the next two decades to craft a strategic plan for his office. From various advisory committees he has received suggestions for 53 major construction projects of over $50 million each, including the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA) for nuclear physics and the Linear Collider for high-energy physics. He questioned how to prioritize projects across fields, and wished for "some wise committee" to make those decisions, but said he has never seen that happen.

Returning to near-term budget issues, Orbach said the challenge for FY 2003 would be simply "keeping house and home together." If his office receives a funding increase, he said, the first priority would be to "repair the damage that flat budgets over ten years have done to us." Then, "if we ever get breathing room," he added, the vitality of the fields and scientific opportunities will guide further investment.

Presentations were made to NSAC on the current situation and the FY 2003 outlook for the NSF and DOE nuclear physics programs. Both programs are operating at FY 2002 funding levels under a continuing resolution, with no estimate for when they will receive final FY 2003 appropriations. In the last fiscal year, NSF nuclear physics did well through both Major Research Instrumentation and Information Technology Research awards, and may receive a healthy increase in the final FY 2003 appropriation, as both House and Senate bills would provide a 14.8 percent increase for NSF's Mathematics and Physical Sciences activity. The FY 2002 appropriation for nuclear physics in DOE, however, was not even a cost-of-living increase, reported Nuclear Physics Division Director Dennis Kovar, and if the program has to continue under that funding level for much longer, he warned, it would necessitate "severe changes" to the program. The FY 2003 requested level of $382.4 million "would go a long way toward addressing" the program's needs, he said. Even with the full FY 2003 request, a case will still need to be made for additional funds for facility operations, he said, but "in my mind, an even higher priority is to get the research budget up" and improve support for graduate students. "It makes no sense," he declared, "to run the facilities if we don't have the researchers to get the science out."

NSAC members also heard presentations on a workshop exploring how the nuclear science community can contribute to counter-terrorism efforts, a cooperative grant program with the National Nuclear Security Administration, and efforts to apply R&D investment criteria to basic research as called for in the President's Management Agenda. For the FY 2003 budget request, DOE's nuclear physics program was a "test case" for developing and applying investment criteria, explained Senior Nuclear Physics Advisor Stephen Steadman. Specific performance goals, performance indicators, and FY 2003 performance targets were developed for the program. For the 2004 fiscal year, other OS programs, as well as NASA, NSF, DOD, and other agencies are incorporating such planning into their budget requests. Steadman noted that performance targets may be modified if the final appropriation differs from the request, and he pointed out that performance is judged by a "portfolio" approach - if several projects address a single goal, the portfolio is considered successful if some, but not necessarily all, of the projects are successful. Steadman said OS was hoping to use this process for "positive gain," while trying to avoid unintended consequences and "harming what is good." OS is seeking the community's continued help to identify meaningful, measurable targets, and Steadman hoped that the generally outstanding quality of the basic research performed would lead, as the management agenda indicates, to increased funding.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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