A Path Forward: "Charting the Course for Elementary Particle Physics"

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Publication date: 
17 May 2006

"Elementary particle physics is poised to make potentially transformative discoveries," a National Research Council committee concludes. "If the United States commits to a strategic vision such as the one the committee has laid out, the nation can continue to occupy a position of leadership in this vibrant and exciting field of science. Such an aspiration is worthy of a great nation wishing to remain on the scientific and technological frontiers. It will inspire future generations, repay the necessary investments many times over, and provide a fuller understanding of our place in the cosmos."

An important report has been released by the Committee on Elementary Particle Physics in the 21st Century of the NRC's Board on Physics and Astronomy. Entitled "Revealing the Hidden Nature of Space and Time, Charting the Course for Elementary Particle Physics," this 128-page report outlines a strategy for the United States to sustain its leadership in particle physics. The Committee was chaired by Harold T. Shapiro, President Emeritus of Princeton University. Shapiro is a professor of economics and public affairs, one of several individuals on this 22-member committee who is not a particle physicist or accelerator scientist. The composition of this committee, which included scientists from the physical sciences and life sciences, as well as industrialists and science policy experts, "was something of an experiment for the National Academies" the report notes.

This report is one of five that are being issued by the Board on Physics and Astronomy in a survey entitled "Physics 2010." Further information on this series can be found at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/166.html

"The cancellation of the SSC was a severe blow to U.S. scientific leadership," the committee concludes. Also of note in this changing environment is annual particle physics research funding, with Europe now spending twice as much as the U.S. The report sets forth a strategy for the U.S. to sustain its leadership in particle physics, and to regain it as groundbreaking research moves to Europe in coming years.

The foundation of this strategy is seven strategic principles. Reflecting the lessons learned since the SSC cancellation and the ongoing construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), this report emphasizes the importance of strategic international partnerships. It declares "particle physics should evolve into a truly global collaboration that would enable the particle physics community to leverage its resources, prevent duplication of effort, and maximize opportunities for particle physicists throughout the world." As noted in another of these principles, "In today's world, leadership in the sciences does not mean singular dominance. Rather, leadership is characterized by taking initiatives on the scientific frontier, accepting risks, and catalyzing partnerships with colleagues both at home and abroad."

To advance the field and to sustain U.S. leadership in the field, the committee recommends six action items for the next fifteen years. A major centerpiece of this strategy is the construction of the International Linear Collider (ILC) which would compliment discoveries that are expected to be made at CERN's LHC which will become operational in 2007. The proposed ILC would be a 500 GeV electron-positron collider which could eventually be increased to 1 TeV. "The LHC, with the high energy of its collisions, and the ILC, with the extremely precise measurements possible at an electron-positron collider, can combine to provide the necessary tools to explore the Terascale. Taken together, discoveries at the LHC and ILC could uncover the much anticipated mysteries of this new domain of nature," the committee concludes.

The path forward for the U.S. to regain its leadership in the field, which will shift to Europe when the LHC becomes operational, will require thoughtful funding decisions by future Administrations and Presidents. The committee describes three funding scenarios and their consequences, ranging from reduced funding as a result of inflation, a constant level of effort budget that will later possibly require higher funding, and a significantly larger budget that would enable a more robust research program. U.S. leadership in the field would be regained through the location of the ILC in the United States, with Fermilab identified as the most appropriate site. The advantages of locating the ILC in the U.S. is reiterated throughout this document.

The report's Executive Summary states: "The U.S. program in particle physics is at a crossroads. The continuing vitality of the programs requires new, decisive, and forward-looking actions. In addition, sustained leadership requires a willingness to take the risks that always accompany leadership on the scientific frontier." This report outlines these actions, and can be read at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11641.html

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