Upbeat Hearing on P5 Report

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Publication date: 
17 June 2014

Last week the House Energy Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to review a report by the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5).  Subcommittee members gave the witnesses a positive reception, complimenting them and the particle physics community for developing a consensus document that will guide the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation in making strategic decisions about the field in the coming decade and beyond.

On May 22, the P5 Panel met and unanimously approved “Building for Discovery: Strategic Plan for U.S. Particle Physics in the Global Context.”   The Panel responded to a request from DOE and NSF “to develop an updated strategic plan for U.S. high energy physics that can be executed over a 10 year timescale, in the context of a 20-year global vision for the field.”  The 25 member panel, chaired by Steven Ritz of the University of California Santa Cruz, was tasked with assessing “current and future scientific opportunities over the next 20 year period.”  P5 was to do this review in the context of recent discoveries and “more stringent budgets than were considered by the previous [2008] panel.”

In early 2009 Congress approved a 15.6 percent funding increase for DOE’s High Energy Physics program that resulted in a total FY 2009 budget of $795.7 million.   This year’s budget is $796.5 million. DOE’s FY 2015 request for High Energy Physics was $744.0 million, a decrease of $52.5 million or 6.6 percent. 

The P5 panel’s recommendations were developed with funding in mind.  The report’s Executive Summary explains “Choices are required.  Ideas for excellent new projects far exceed what can be executed with currently available resources.  The United States must invest purposefully in areas that have the biggest impacts and that make most efficient use of limited resources.”   Using three funding scenarios the panel arrived at a mix of large, medium, and small projects that will produce important physics results in the next twenty years.  A two-page summary of the panel’s findings and recommendations is available here

Joining Steven Ritz at the witness table for the June 10 hearing were Persis Drell of Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Nigel Lockyer, Director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; and Natalie Roe, Physics Division Director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  They stressed the open and transparent process that encouraged input from the particle physics community in the development of the report.  In his submitted testimony Ritz said “In our deliberations, no topic or option was off the table.  Every alternative we could imagine was considered.  We operated by consensus: even when just one or two individuals voiced concerns we worked through the issues.”  Drell elaborated in her prepared testimony, explaining “The transparency of the process and the clarity of the P5 arguments are essential for the community. The integrity of the process was incredibly important in order to get the community to support the outcome of the prioritization process.”

Lockyer and Roe’s written testimony described how the report’s recommendations build on the research conducted at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider that Lockyer described as “a huge success by any measure.”  He discussed the importance of the LHC’s high luminosity upgrade and Fermilab’s hosting of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility, an international accelerator-based neutrino flagship project. “The global partnership model for neutrinos is appropriate because of the large scale of the experiment,” Lockyer testified.  “We do the science together but at the end of the day, we own the technology intellectual property (IP) that has broad value to the nation.”  Roe stressed the importance of small and medium sized experiments.  “Many of these . . . are in the so-called Cosmic Frontier, the study of dark energy, dark matter and the early Universe.  The US is already a leader in this area, and a strong particle physics program would ensure that we stay there.”

Member reaction to the witnesses and the P5 report was uniformly positive.  In her prepared opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) stated “the field has been highly successful.”  Calling the report “a road map for success” Lummis said:

“While the U.S. remains in a state of fiscal uncertainty, reducing overall federal spending in order to arrive at a balanced budget should be a top priority. Yet during this process, we cannot overlook the fact that the federal government plays a critical role when it comes to the nation’s long-term competitiveness in the physical sciences. As noted in the P5 report, ‘the countries that lead these activities attract the top minds and talent from around the world, inspire the next generation of scientists and technologists, and host international teams dedicated to a common purpose.’ In particle physics, the U.S. is already slipping and stands to lose its position of global significance if we do not act boldly.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Swalwell’ s (D-CA) opening statement cited recent advances in the field and made similar points:

“as amazing as these developments may be and as much as we would like to continue to push the frontiers of science, we are also forced to keep in mind our current fiscally constrained environment. This is the reason the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation charged the P5 Panel with doing the hard work of prioritizing particle physics projects under several difficult budget scenarios -- the lowest one being particularly restrictive and, in my view, unacceptable given the critical missed opportunities that would be required to meet it. I believe the end result is a very strong product, and I want to thank Dr. Ritz for his leadership of the P5, as well as the entire P5 team for their efforts.”

Other subcommittee members indicated their support for the report.  Friendly questions about the applicability of research results to economic growth and other advances, the importance of the Fermilab upgrade, international cooperation and accelerator technology university programs gave the witnesses an opportunity to stress the importance of the field.  Fermilab Director Lockyer, speaking for his laboratory and the Office of Science partner labs, aptly captured the sentiments in the hearing room when he stated “we are excited, energized, and up to the challenge.”