Symposium on “Accelerators for America’s Future”

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Publication date: 
5 November 2009

There was a large turnout last week on the first day of a three-day symposium entitled “Accelerators for America’s Future.”The attendance, as well as the presentations from a diverse range of speakers, demonstrated the great interest there is in the potential of accelerators in areas such as medicine, industrial applications, and energy, as well as in new accelerator technologies.

Most people, if they are aware of particle accelerators, associate them with highly esoteric  research at large and expensive machines such as the Tevatron or Large Hadron Collider.  Indicative of this were remarks at a House Science and Technology Committee subcommittee hearing last month at which the chairman criticized the SSC and the LHC, later calling them  “big gizmos.”  He told the witnesses who were testifying on the DOE’s high energy physics and nuclear physics programs  “you get to skate, partially because you know stuff that we don’t have a clue [about] what you are doing.” The chairman questioned whether taxpayers’ money could have been better spent on more immediate and practical needs.

The symposium was sponsored by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of High Energy Physics, and was co chaired by Walter Henning and Charles Shank.  The first speaker was Dennis Kovar, Director of the Office of High Energy Physics.  He explained that five working groups that were to met on the second and third days of the symposium would advise the Office of Science on “opportunities for advancements in accelerator technologies.”  The groups would also review impacts accelerators would have in basic research and applications “so that investments in accelerator R&D can be directed to best meet the needs of the Office of Science and the Nation.”  The working groups will issue a report that will, as shown in an exhibit Kovar presented, “identify current and future needs of stakeholders, seek out crosscutting challenges - technical, cost, policy - whose solutions may have transformative impacts on opportunities for the future, identify the areas of accelerator R&D that hold greatest promise,  [and] provide guidance to bridge the gap between basic accelerator research and technology deployment” in basic research, medicine and biology, energy, environment, national security, and industrial applications and production.    The Director of the Office of Science, William Brinkman, was the second speaker, telling the symposium that his office spends approximately $500 million annually on the Tevatron, LHC, and R&D on advanced accelerator technology.  Speaking of the proposed International Linear Collider, which reports indicate could cost $25 billion, Brinkman said “the science community can’t afford this thing.”   His words echoed his comment two weeks ago to the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel that  “in my opinion, the price pushes it way out . . . onto the back burner.”  New accelerator approaches are needed, Brinkman said, listing five “promising emerging accelerator technologies” supported by the Office of Science, focusing on the Wakefield technology in two of his exhibits.

“Science in the U.S. faces an asteroid” Norman Augustine warned the symposium.  He worries  about a drop in physical sciences funding after the economic stimulus funding is spent, warning that science could be worse off than it was before these one-time funds were made available.  Federal funding of basic research is especially important, he exclaimed, since  private industry concentrates its spending on applied research.  Great nations, such as the United States, should support accelerators, Augustine said.

The remainder of the symposium’s first day program was devoted to accelerators and their applications.  Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, introduced the first set of speakers.  Dylla described the unique role that accelerators play as a discovery tool, with benefits that are less obvious to the general public.  The accelerator community needs to do a better job of communicating the value of accelerator research to the public, he said, citing the comments made during the House hearing.  Dylla spoke of the importance of new technologies in lowering the cost of accelerators, citing the average $150 million cost to build a medical accelerator that is based on a fifty-year-old design.

The common theme running through the presentations by the other eight speakers was the important role that accelerators currently play as well as their potential in making advancements in what one called “Society’s Grand Challenges of the 21st Century,” such as the prevention of nuclear terrorism, fusion, clean water, and better medicines.  While there are many opportunities, there are also challenges.  As an example, one speaker described concerns about the decreasing number of university accelerators and the impact this is having on the future accelerator workforce.  A list of all the speakers and their exhibits can be accessed here

The next two days of the symposium were devoted to working groups in discovery science, medicine and biology, industrial applications and production, energy and environment, and national security.  Participants in these closed working groups will draft a report that will be presented to the Office of Science and its Office of High Energy Physics.  Further information about these working groups is available here.

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