FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Sobering Budget Outlook for Nuclear Physics Research

Richard M. Jones
Number 106 - August 1, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

Adjust text size enlarge text shrink text    |    Print this pagePrint this page    |     Bookmark and Share     |    rss feed for FYI

“Now the ground started to fall away almost immediately,” said Stuart Freedman, Chair of the National Research Council committee that wrote a report on the future of nuclear physics research, at a recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).  Freedman was discussing changes in the funding outlook that occurred during the preparation of the NP 2010: An Assessment and Outlook for Nuclear Physics decadal review.  A report by the committee was released in a prepublication version in late June. 

Freedman presented the committee’s findings and recommendations and took questions during a 45 minute session at the July 19 PCAST meeting.  The committee was tasked with preparing an assessment and outlook for nuclear physics research, building on the 2007 Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) Long-Range Plan.  The committee was also charged with developing long-term priorities for nuclear physics research.  During Freedman’s twenty-minute overview he discussed support for university research and major laboratory facilities in the United States, international research, underground research, and a proposed Electron-Ion Collider.

Following his presentation, Freedman took questions from PCAST members which centered on the budget outlook for nuclear physics research.  Freedman’s comments, while relating specifically to nuclear physics research, can be applied more generally to physics research and to science as a whole:

“When we [the NRC committee] started [April 2010], the trajectory of the budget - and that’s mostly DOE . . . is something like . . . $555 million.

“The NSF is about one-tenth of that.  The DOE budget was on a trajectory that was increasing at a reasonable rate that would accommodate all of the items, for example, recommended in the long-range plan.  There still would be a tension between research at universities, and these [national] facilities that would have to be addressed.  But it looked like that would fit for a time, and that all of this was achievable.

“Now the ground started to fall away almost immediately.  The budget did not increase.  In fact, it decreased slightly.  It’s been essentially flat or just below flat.  It’s now recognized, and this came toward the end of our study, that what is requested, in particular, the cost of running all these facilities, is just not practical within the existing budget.

“We didn’t feel it was our role . . . to decide . . . the ordering of these facilities.  There’s another committee, it’s a subpanel of NSAC that has been constituted already, and they’re requested, since the nuclear physicists would prefer to be the ones to make the priorities, to give an ordering of what are the most important priorities in the field.  And presumably, this could be used in order to confront the reality of the budget if it is really maintained at that level.  And it would likely mean that one of the major facilities would have to close.”

When Freedman was asked “One cannot actually build that heavy-ion facility unless one of the two existing facilities goes, right?  Isn’t that basically the math?” he replied:

“What exists . . . are three major facilities now, RHIC [Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider], CEBAF [Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility] and FRIB [Facility for Rare Isotope Beams] . . . “

When told “the first two are operating and the third one is not” Freedman responded:

“Well, the funds for building it and operating it in the budget could very likely under the present scheme, all three of those things could not go forward.  That would be a difficulty.  See, our first recommendation says exploit the investments you’ve already made.  The investments in RHIC have already been made.  We’re asking to use them.  The [upgrade] investments in CEBAF are near complete, and you’re asking to exploit them.  On the other hand, FRIB for various reasons is a great opportunity, and has taken a long time to develop and the project is on track.”

Freedman added, “I think that’s possibly going to be a good example of how the DOE can work at universities.  That [FRIB] project is going very well as I understand it.”

Later Freedman commented on funding in previous years:

“this has happened once before. . . exactly the same circumstance happened when there was another significant dip in the DOE budget.  Now that dip didn’t occur for very long.  It was a one year thing, and it turned out that everything managed to go forward in the end.  The way the budget looks now, it doesn’t look like this is going to be easily recovered.  So these hard decisions need to be made . . . .”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics