APS News

Panel Says Flat Funding Could Doom RHIC

By Michael Lucibella

A Department of Energy panel has reluctantly concluded that unless budgets for nuclear science increase, the DOE will not be able to afford to keep Brookhaven’s RHIC accelerator running. Because of projected budget shortfalls, the agency likely will not have the money to keep its three nuclear science projects going at the same time.

The Office of Nuclear Physics (NP) within the DOE Office of Science operates three major facilities, and is in a financial bind. Funding for the three has been effectively declining while simultaneously costs have been increasing because of inflation, planned upgrades and new construction.

NP is in the middle of upgrading the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Jefferson Lab, building the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University, while running the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven.

The issue has been looming for some time. Last year, at the request of the DOE’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) appointed Robert Tribble of Texas A&M University to head a subcommittee charged with recommending a plan for the next five years of nuclear science. Tribble, who is past-Chair of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics, presented his team’s report on January 28 at an NSAC meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, concluding that if increased funding for nuclear physics is not forthcoming, CEBAF and FRIB should receive priority over RHIC.

“In light of the substantial commitment that’s been made to upgrade CEBAF under all budget scenarios, the subcommittee recommends completing the upgrade and capitalizing on the science that it enables,” Tribble said. “The subcommittee vote, while closely split, resulted in a slight preference to the choice that proceeds with FRIB.”

Officially, the report’s primary recommendation is that funding for nuclear science be increased.

“The report does not recommend shutting down RHIC. It recommends a modest growth budget that would allow CEBAF and RHIC to operate for the highest impact science and proceed with FRIB construction,” Tribble said in an email. “It is only under no-growth budgets that something as dire as shutting down RHIC might occur.”

The proposed FRIB will shoot a beam of stable ions at a fixed target, creating rare isotopes usually only found in the extreme temperature and pressure of supernovae. CEBAF is the crown jewel of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. It accelerates a continuous beam of electrons, which can be directed at targets in any of three different experimental halls. The experiments are mainly designed to provide greater understanding of quantum chromodynamics. RHIC is a 3.8-kilometer accelerator that collides heavy gold and lead ions to create hot quark gluon plasma. RHIC was the first facility to create this new phase of matter, but CERN recently claimed to have surpassed RHIC’s milestone, creating plasma almost 40 percent hotter.

The committee first looked at two budget scenarios, one that included increases that kept up with inflation, and a “flat flat” budget, which kept the budget the same, but with its buying power slightly reduced because of inflation. Tribble and his team found that neither scenario could keep all three facilities running, and it would take at least a 1.6% increase over inflation to keep them open, what Tribble termed the “Modest Growth Option.”

Office of Science Director Bill Brinkman is worried that there may be even more cuts coming. Unless a budget plan is worked out, automatic 6% cuts, known as sequestration, are to set in on March 1.

“We have a situation in which the Congress [and] the administration now are starting to take the idea that sequestration might happen more seriously. And so we’re starting to really look at impact,” Brinkman said. “It strikes me as a dangerous thing if it happens.”

NP wound up in this financial crunch after coming up with a long-term plan in 2007. The plan predicted increasing annual budgets and called for new construction and upgrades. A year later the recession hit, resulting in constricting science budgets while construction and upgrades went forward.

Congress allocated $547 million for nuclear sciences in 2012. That amount is in total about $20 million higher that what was allocated for 2011, but most areas saw slight cuts, offset by allocations specially for FRIB’s construction, CEBAF’s upgrade and small business investments.

The president’s budget requested $526 million for 2013 for all nuclear sciences, but because of political gridlock it is unclear when or how much of it will pass. It is possible that Congress will pass a continuing resolution keeping the funding the same as 2012, resulting in flat flat funding. If sequestration sets in after March 1, NP stands to lose between 5.5% and 8% of its budget.

Brinkman urged scientists to lobby Congress to protect funding for these programs.

“To me these [cuts] represent permanent damage to the field and I don’t think you’ll easily recover from them,” Brinkman said. “I think it’s extremely important for everyone in the room to understand that they need to be talking to their Congressmen and people on the Hill to get some action on this subject.”

After Tribble’s announcement, Brookhaven’s interim laboratory director Doon Gibbs released a statement expressing concern. He pledged to work to keep RHIC operating.

“I have been in touch with the leadership of each of the other two affected facilities, and we have agreed to work together to realize the modest growth path,” Gibbs said.

Tribble reflected Gibbs’s sentiments in his presentation to the Advisory committee.

“To me it would be a disaster for the US nuclear science program. It’s a clear short-term problem that I think could likely result in the start of a longer-term decline of the field as a whole,” Tribble said. “So consequently I think we all must work together to do our best to keep it from happening to preserve our field.”

Brinkman also expressed concern about the long-term prospects of the United States’ nuclear science program.

“It seems to me that we’re heading in a direction that is totally the wrong direction,” Brinkman said. “Everywhere I look I see international competition in almost every sub-field that we have. And so it strikes me that if we keep heading in this wrong direction, we could really lose our position in the world.”


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella