APS News

Session Explores the Future of Global Physics Projects

By Nadia Ramlagan

There are currently several physics projects at various stages of development that are truly global in scale, notably the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). In addition the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and its Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) is a major regional project. At the APS April Meeting, a panel of speakers examined the future of these international physics projects.  

The panel included Pier Oddone, Director of Fermilab; Chris Llewellyn Smith, former Director of the UK’s fusion program, former Director General of CERN, and now President of the SESAME Council; Lawrence Krauss, who is the Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University; and Jack Gibbons, who was Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1993-98. FPS Officer and Fermilab scientist Pushpa Bhat chaired the session.

International collaborations have several obvious benefits: progress is clearly fastest when you can draw on the best knowledge whatever its location; sharing project costs leverages resources; and scientists with different training and backgrounds tend to generate innovative ideas and solutions. But large projects are expensive and difficult to organize, involving years of work from thousands of dedicated scientists. Accordingly, it is important to review what has been learned from past projects, sort out and resolve issues, and look for a way forward.

In the past, projects such as the BABAR collaboration at SLAC have been successful, but not at the scale of ITER or the LHC. “When you get to the next level of scale, you really have to ask questions. Because along with the benefits of getting a critical mass of people and money come a whole host of other issues that are actually very difficult to handle. There are few examples of successfully completed projects of the grand scale of ITER–that remains to be seen,” said Oddone.

How do different nations come together to manage, fund, and generate successful projects? Do we want to have a defined model for global projects? Who are the drivers for the decision making? And provocatively, do we need an international science agency? These are pressing questions for the next decade.

There are disadvantages to international collaboration to consider: it can reduce competition, and the added complexity of decision making often proceeds sporadically, rendering the process very time consuming. Additionally, there may be tension between commercial competition and collaboration, as seen in ITER.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons. The lesson of the SSC [Superconducting Super Collider] was if you want a collaboration to be international, it’s best to start at the beginning. Don’t set something up and ask others to come in later, because that’s difficult. And it takes time to built up confidence between the administrators,” said Llewellyn Smith.

Referring to ITER, he continued, “Another problem is that everyone wants to contribute in-kind. But if you disperse the contributions too much you risk making all sorts of problems in integration and management and it drives the cost up. People didn’t understand that would happen.”

All of the speakers brought up the US and its declining role as a major player in global science. Because each new Congress acts independently, long-term commitment to projects is vulnerable to the annual funding cycle, creating an impression of unreliability in the eyes of other countries.

Even in tough economic times, the US needs to work on resuming its position as the ballast of funding and involvement. “Any major international project is going to span some period of economic recession. And during that time it will be very easy to kill an international project, the SSC is one example. Science, especially esoteric science, seems an easy target,” said Krauss.

In order to ensure funding for these projects, showing the public that fundamental research has an economic payoff is imperative. Without communicating the implications of international collaborations and esoteric science, support is likely to be scarce. “We haven’t done our homework in going farther in pointing out the efficacy of this work to the investors, namely the taxpayers,” said Gibbons.  

Despite the encumbering problems that loom ahead, global projects continue to be an inspiration. “Scientific projects are a model for society, they have been remarkable in allowing countries that will not otherwise interact, to interact, and not just at a peripheral level, but at a fundamental level. The fact that the LHC can be built by thousands of physicists in hundreds of countries speaking dozens of languages, and it actually works–is remarkable,” said Krauss.

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Editor: Alan Chodos