National Science Foundation Facility Plan, September 2005
Available at: http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf05058
As a fairly general report, the National Science Foundation Facility Plan does not contain any revolutionary piece of information – nor should it, since that is not its primary purpose. However, this sixty-odd page report presents an accurate overview of some of the trends in the development of the material basis of the sciences, namely, the technological platforms upon which major research projects will be conducted in the years to come. Dealing with phenomena that occur on a vast range of temporal and spatial scales, the research equipment showcased in the NSF Facility Plan is a testament to the diversity of science’s interests and areas of application. But perhaps more importantly, it is evidence of the magnitude of NSF-funded scientific endeavors and of the growing integration of different strands of knowledge in elaborate large-scale interdisciplinary projects.
The NSF Facility Plan consists of three sections, the first being an introduction to the financial nature of the Foundation’s operations (in essence, a brief description of the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account, the MREFC). The second section presents a fairly general description of some of the scientific questions that have been identified in projects dealing with different scales of nature, from the subatomic to the cosmological. Most of the challenges mentioned in this section are well-known within the scientific community. They include such things as the need to understand the manner in which biological systems assemble themselves; the processes through which new material structures and nanoscale devices can be manufactured efficiently; the properties of new states of matter; the behavior of the Sun and other celestial bodies; the fundamental nature of physical forces and of the elements and structure of the universe, just to mention a few. Of particular interest, however, the report opens with a reference to the areas of science studying mesoscale phenomena, including complex social, economic and environmental processes that require “researchers to view holistically different kinds of interrelated phenomena that have never been regarded as systems” (p. 8). In this sense, the NSF Facility Plan mirrors a relatively recent premise of science, that is, the search for an interdisciplinary understanding of planetary processes and their relation with human societies.
The third section of the report summarizes some of the current and projected facilities financed by the NSF. With an estimated expenditure of nearly 1.5 billion dollars for the 2004-2010 period, the thirteen MREFC projects include research in the following three areas:
- Astronomy and astrophysics, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array which will produce “the world’s most sensitive, highest-resolution, millimeter wavelength telescope” (p. 20), the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the world’s “first high-energy neutrino observatory” (p. 24) located under the ice of the South Pole, and the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, that might allow researchers to detect for the first time gravitational waves.
- Earth and environmental sciences, including EarthScope, the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research, the National Ecological Observatory Network, the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, the Scientific Ocean Drilling Vessel, the South Pole Station, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and the Alaska Region Research Vessel, altogether part of the quest for a better understanding of the dynamic nature of our planet.
- Supercomputing, including the development of Terascale Computing Systems, a project that funded the construction of the Extensible Terascale Facility, aimed to increase the simulation and analysis capabilities of a growing community of researchers who rely on state-of-the-art computation either for research or education purposes.
Perhaps symptomatic of the bloated budgets that have characterized high-energy particle physics over the last two decades, the report mentions the cancellation in August 2005 of the Rare Symmetry Violating Processes project which sought to explain the predominance of matter over antimatter as well as the physical differences between the electron and the muon. Other projects that are still in the exploratory phase (such as the Coherent X-Ray Light Source, the Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, and the Petascale Earth System Collaboratory) are also mentioned in the final part of the report.
Some of the overarching themes that permeate the report merit attention since they confirm some of the current trends in large-scale research projects. International collaboration is a recurring characteristic in several of the projects mentioned in the NSF Facility Plan. Based in Chile’s northern region, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array serves as a good example of how the convergence of researchers, knowledge, technologies and funds from different countries leads to the materialization of an ambitious project that would otherwise be difficult to attain. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is likewise the product of international collaboration, since it involves the participation of American, Belgian, German and Swedish institutions. The National Ecological Observatory Network also considers international participation through the counsel of Argentinean, Canadian and Mexican organizations.
Education and outreach are also stressed in the report, in particular as significant outputs of the equipments and facilities. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array, for instance, is planed to be used by nearly 300 students annually, thereby playing a “central role in the education and training of U.S. astronomy and engineering students” (p. 20). In this sense, the equipments and facilities envisioned by the NSF will not only provide existing scientists with the capability to undertake revolutionary research but will also allow a new generation of researchers to become familiarized with the tools of the trade. In this way, the projects developed under the NSF’s auspices are defining and securing the road for the science of the future.
Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra
Science Studies Unit
University of Edinburgh)