Sobering Budget Outlook for Nuclear Physics Research

Share This

Publication date: 
1 August 2012

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 . . .  .”

Explore FYI topics: