U.S. Should Resume Leadership of Global Physics Projects

By Nadia Ramlagan

LHC from CERNweb
Courtesy of CERN
Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

 

The nation’s role as a major player in global science is on the decline, according to a panel of speakers who recently examined the future of international physics projects during an APS meeting in Pittsburgh.

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, concluded the panelists.

Currently, there are several physics projects at various stages of development that are global in scale, notably the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s largest and highest energy particle accelerator–and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – a project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor. In addition, SESAME – the development of an international synchrotron light source in the Middle East – is a major regional project.

International collaborations have several benefits: Progress is faster when you draw on the best knowledge no matter its location; sharing project costs leverages resources; and scientists with diverse training and backgrounds tend to generate innovative ideas and solutions.

As for U.S. involvement in international projects, the country needs to, even in tough economic times, 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 (Superconducting Super Collider) is one example. Science, especially esoteric science, seems an easy target,” said Lawrence Krauss, Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University.

To ensure funding for these projects, showing the public that fundamental research has an economic payoff is imperative. Added Jack Gibbons, Former Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, “We haven’t done our homework in going further in pointing out the efficacy of this work to the investors, namely the taxpayers.”

Despite the 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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