APS News

Nuclear Physics Facilities Confront Funding Crisis

By Ernie Tretkoff

The US nuclear physics community appears to have survived a critical funding challenge this year, but prospects for continued operation of both its major experimental facilities in future years could still be in jeopardy.

In February, the President’s budget request included funding cuts in the Department of Energy’s budget for nuclear physics to $370.4 million, a reduction of 8.4% from FY05. The majority of the DOE budget for nuclear science is dominated by two large facilities—RHIC at Brookhaven and CEBAF at Jefferson Lab.

The level of funding recommended by the Bush administration would not have been enough to sustain both of these facilities, so it appeared that one would have to be shut down.

In March, the Director of DOE’s Office of Science, Ray Orbach, and the NSF’s Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Michael Turner, jointly asked the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) for a plan to deal with the reduction in funding. In late June, a 23-member NSAC subcommittee, chaired by Robert Tribble of Texas A&M, came out with a recommendation–a slight preference for RHIC over JLab.

Congress has now voted for increased funding for nuclear physics, probably enough to continue to operate both labs in FY06, but a final budget has yet to be determined. And the Presidential requests in succeeding years are cause for additional concern.

At the level of the President’s budget request, especially if that level of funding continued for several years, “it’s really not possible to run these two large facilities,” said Tribble. The subcommittee also studied priorities for several better budget scenarios.

RHIC and JLab both probe the workings of nuclear matter, but with very different approaches. RHIC smashes heavy ions together with the aim of creating a new form of quark-gluon matter, while CEBAF uses a continuous beam of high energy electrons to study the structure of nucleons.

“There’s a lot of science going on. [RHIC and JLab] are unique in different ways. It’s not obvious how to proceed,” said Tribble. “There is a huge crisis if we have to turn one of the two machines off.”

“Both are very young facilities that are beginning to produce exciting results,” said Brad Sherrill, chair of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics and a subcommittee member. “There are large user communities, including people from overseas, who rely on these facilities.” No comparable facilities exist overseas, he said. Losing either of these labs would be a huge blow to the field, he said. “From a broader perspective, if you took out one piece, you’re missing an important piece of the science.”

The DNP urged its members to share their views on the potential crisis at a town meeting at the APS April Meeting, and on a web forum, said Sherrill.

Under the worst-case budget scenario, the subcommittee recommends a “slight preference” for RHIC over JLab, reasoning that RHIC is still in a “discovery phase.” RHIC has produced evidence for quark-gluon matter, in which quarks and gluons, normally confined into nucleons, come unbound. RHIC scientists are only beginning to investigate the properties of this strange new state of matter, which some say may resemble a state that existed in the very early universe.

Even though not everyone will be happy with the recommendation, Sherrill said he thought the nuclear physics community responded well to a very difficult situation. “I think it was a very thoughtful response. Obviously, declining budgets threaten a lot of people in the field. The community as a whole worked together without a lot of divisive infighting,” said Sherrill.

Now that the difficult choice has been made, it looks like the worry may have been premature. In June the House voted to increase the DOE budget for nuclear physics by about one percent over FY05, to $408.3 million, and the Senate voted for an even larger budget of $419.7 million. In its report, the NSAC subcommittee also considered budget scenarios close to what Congress has passed. Under these circumstances, neither RHIC nor the JLab facility would have to be shut, said Tribble. The subcommittee also recommended that with the higher levels of funding, JLab should be able to proceed with its planned upgrade to 12GeV.

This response from Congress may be due in part to efforts by the nuclear physics community to inform lawmakers of the importance of funding nuclear physics. Nuclear physicists took the potential crisis very seriously, said Sherrill. They wrote letters, visited congressional offices, and participated in the town meeting to share their views, he said. APS also had a general letter-writing campaign, in which members wrote letters urging Congress to support funding for physical sciences.

Congressmen were receptive to these efforts, said Sherrill. “Generally we had a very good response from lawmakers. It’s really encouraging that both the House and Senate are recommending increases over the President’s request,” he said.