Research and Education: Better Together

By Philip Zecher

Physical sciences research funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy have often overlapped and university-based research facilities have competed with the national labs for resources and talent. Normally, competition is a good thing that undoubtedly improves the quality of the research and bolsters US scientific preeminence. However, at least two trends threaten to turn a once-healthy competitive environment into a harmful fight for diminishing resources.

First, the overall resources available for research in the physical sciences has decreased dramatically over the last three decades, dropping nearly 50% in the last three decades as a percentage of GDP. Second, the inevitable consolidation caused by the increasing complexity and expense of leading edge research facilities means that fewer dollars are fighting for only a handful of bigger and more expensive projects.  

University-based research labs have felt this constriction most acutely. For instance, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there were many university laboratories with accelerators doing leading edge research in nuclear physics: MIT, SUNY, Harvard, Stonybrook, University of Rochester, Ohio University, Notre Dame, Cornell and Indian University, to name but a few. Today, of the five major facilities that dominate nuclear physics–the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Jefferson Lab, the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility (HRIBF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the 88-Inch Cyclotron at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University, and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory--only two are found on a university campus: the 88-Inch Cyclotron and the NSCL.  

While the consolidation of research facilities may be inevitable, the move away from the university settings to the national labs is not, and it may come at a cost to US competitiveness. The 2006 National Academies of Science report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, on how to prosper in the global economy of the 21st century, made the case that our economic future depends on education in science, engineering and mathematics. The third of its four recommendations declares that we should “make the US the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research so that we can develop, recruit, and retain the best and brightest students, scientists, and engineers…” This recommendation is undermined by the migration of research facilities out of universities and into the national labs, which are not first and foremost education facilities.

It is a matter of speculation whether an education, particularly a graduate education, that is physically removed from one’s research equipment is any less desirable than an education where the research is done on campus. After all, few ecologists perform their research anywhere near their home institutions. But the pejorative term “suitcase science” has emerged to describe the work done by researchers who travel to national labs to run experiments, suggesting that this arrangement may be less than ideal. The best facilities generally attract and compete for the best researchers in the field. Once the facilities leave the campus, the human capital tends to follow, leaving students with fewer opportunities to interact with the diverse leaders in their field and potentially diminishing their education.

The migration of new facilities to the national labs is in part due to a shift in nuclear physics funding from the NSF to the DOE. In constant dollar terms, the NSF nuclear physics budget has declined in the last 20 years while the DOE’s component of combined budgets allocated to nuclear physics has increased from 85% in 1989 to 90% in 2008. As the DOE picks up more of the nuclear physics research tab, it must choose to allocate its resources between universities and the national labs, and as evidenced by the list of major nuclear physics facilities, the trend is clear.

The question of the DOE’s role in providing research facilities is nothing new. In a 1992 report, delivered to the senior President Bush by then director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, D. Allan Bromley of Yale, the issue of the federal laboratories is explicitly raised, declaring that “because federal support for research intensive universities is affected by agency commitments to federal laboratories, PCAST believes there is now an urgent need to reexamine the roles of the more than seven hundred federal laboratories.”

Sixteen years later, this question of national policy has not been addressed and again manifests itself in the current competition between a university and the DOE. The remaining, fully university-based nuclear physics facility among the five major facilities, the NSCL, is competing with Argonne for the contract to build the next generation rare-isotope laboratory, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). All parties agree that this competition should be decided on the merits of each proposal, but in stark contrast to the DOE’s stated goal of “training the next generation of scientists,” it has declared that it will not consider any educational benefits that might result from integrating FRIB into MSU when evaluating MSU’s proposal.

The Renewing the Promise report went on to address directly the different merits that should be considered for federal funding. “It is appropriate to consider making all federal basic research support available for merit-based competition by universities, federal laboratories, or industry. Merit review in this case should include, as additional criteria, potential long-term contributions to economic well-being, national security, and education.”  

Many of our top research universities are under tremendous financial pressure and when they compete for federal research dollars, if their biggest asset, the education of our future scientific leaders, is not to be considered, can we expect to “make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research?” US universities will not remain magnets for talent if the most powerful tools to perform research are located elsewhere.

Philip Zecher is a partner, and Chief Risk Officer, of EQA Partners, LP, of Stamford, CT. He holds a PhD in nuclear physics from Michigan State University.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan

November 2008 (Volume 17, Number 10)

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Articles in this Issue
Public Affairs Report Examines Nuclear Weapons Policy
LaserFest to Celebrate 50 Years of Laser Innovation
2008 Nobel Prize Goes to Nambu, Kobayashi and Maskawa for Work on Broken Symmetries
APS Awards First Industrial Physics Prize to Philip J. Wyatt
Bringing a Sun to Earth: Briefing Explains ITER Fusion Experiment
Board Passes New Policies on Unit Newsletters, Committee Funding Requests
Meeting Briefs
Mass Media Fellows Describe Their Experiences
Noyce Scholarships to Aid Selected Physics Teachers
MGM Recipients Achieve MacArthur Trifecta
Physics Bachelor's and PhDs Continue to Trend Upward
Inside the Beltway
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science