F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2004



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POPA Looks at the Hydrogen Initiative and a Proposed Modern Pit Facility

Barbara Goss Levi,

POPA occasionally produces discussion papers on topics currently debated in Congress in order to inform the debate with the perspectives of physicists working in the relevant issue areas (see http://www.aps.org/public_affairs/index.cfm). In the past year, POPA members have produced such papers on two different topics.

The hydrogen initiative.

The first report dealt with the multi-year $1.2 billion Hydrogen Initiative proposed in 2003 by President Bush to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil through the production of hydrogen fuel and a hydrogen-fueled car. What would be the appropriate allocation of such funds?

The main message of the POPA report is that “major scientific breakthroughs are required for the Hydrogen Initiative to succeed. Basic science must have greater emphasis both in planning and in the research program.”

The concluding statement of the POPA report also suggests that “the Hydrogen Technical Advisory Committee … include members who are deeply familiar with the core basic science problems. ‘Bridge’ technologies should be given greater attention. And, the Hydrogen Initiative should not displace research into promising energy efficiency and renewable energy areas.”

The report advised against rushing into demonstration projects: Demonstration projects “will only benefit the overall program when a sufficient knowledge base exists.” It also advocated that “Principal-Investigator research . . . be increased. And, PI research should be complemented with competitively-bid, peer-reviewed multidisciplinary research centers that carry out basic research in the key research areas of production, storage and use.”

APS Associate Director of Public Affairs, Francis Slakey, reports that several recent actions of Congress are consistent with these recommendations. In particular, the House Appropriations Bill recently reduced funding for applied research and demonstration projects for the hydrogen initiative and fully funded increases for basic research at DOE Office of Science for hydrogen research. Also, while the Bill is not unsupportive  of hydrogen research centers, it required that the funding for the proposed centers be "competitively  bid" and peer reviewed - no earmarks.

A Modern Pit Facility?

In the past year there has been some pressure on Congress to fund the development of a Modern Pit Facility (MPF) to produce the cores for nuclear weapons. Even if the US nuclear arsenal does not grow, existing cores will need to be replaced as they age. The only US pit manufacturing facility was shut down in 1989, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently reestablished a limited capability to produce pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The NNSA has proposed an additional Modern Pit Facility (MPF) that would have a much larger capacity.

A subset of POPA examined the technical issues associated with the MPF because such a large investment in permanent infrastructure is a significant commitment of resources in the overall stewardship program. Their main message is to defer a decision on the MPF:

“There are several technical issues to address before proceeding with site selection or committing to an MPF design. These decisions should be deferred until Congress can more thoroughly assess the MPF and various alternatives while supporting an enhanced research program on plutonium aging. In particular, in 2006, a milestone will be reached in an experiment to estimate the minimum pit lifetime, the result of which will help inform production needs. Further, pit production assessments must be informed by clearer evaluations of future nuclear force structure.”

Slakey reports a positive reception of this message on the Hill. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently suspended 50% of MPF funding pending an assessment of pit production requirements. And they contracted with JASON to do a study on plutonium aging. Furthermore, Slakey says, the House Energy and Water Committee suspended all funding for MPF pending the results of the accelerated aging experiment.

Barbara Goss Levi,
FPS Representative to POPA
Consulting Editor, Physics Today
Bglevi@msn.com, blevi@aip.org
805-965-3483 (tel), 805-884-6121 (fax)

BOX 1: The Hydrogen Initiative: Executive Summary

In 2003, President Bush announced a multi-year $1.2 billion Hydrogen Initiative intended to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil through the production of hydrogen fuel and a hydrogen-fueled car. The Initiative has envisioned the competitive use of hydrogen in commercial transportation by the year 2020.

Currently, the US hydrogen industry produces 9,000,000 tons of hydrogen per year. Several hydrogen-fueling stations are scheduled to open this year. And, several models of hydrogen-fueled cars have been demonstrated.

Unfortunately, none of the current technologies are competitive options for the consumer. The most promising hydrogen-engine technologies require factors of 10 to 100 improvements in cost or performance in order to be competitive. Further, hydrogen cannot simply be extracted from the air, ground or water – it must be produced. Yet, as the Secretary of Energy has stated, current hydrogen production methods are four times more expensive than gasoline. Finally, no material exists to construct a hydrogen fuel tank that meets the consumer benchmarks. A new material must be developed.

These are enormous performance gaps. Incremental improvements to existing technologies are not sufficient to close all the gaps. For the Hydrogen Initiative to succeed, major scientific breakthroughs are needed.

Basic science must have greater emphasis both in planning and in the research program. The Hydrogen Technical Advisory Committee should include members of the basic research community who are familiar with the relevant science problems. Further, given the multidisciplinary nature of the scientific problems involved, principal-investigator funded research should be complemented with the creation of several peer-reviewed, competitively bid, Research Centers that focus on the relevant research problems in hydrogen production, storage and use.

In the event that the timeline for hydrogen vehicles slips beyond 2020, there will be greater need for technologies that serve as a so-called “bridge” between the current fossil-fuel economy and any future hydrogen economy. Increasing the focus on basic science and engineering that advances such technologies would serve as a sensible hedge and at the same time maintain the development of technologies that show clear short-term promise. Similarly, the Hydrogen Initiative must not displace research into promising energy efficiency and renewable energy areas.

BOX 2: The Modern Pit Facility: Executive Summary

Plutonium “pits” are the cores of modern nuclear weapons. In order to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is safe and reliable, plutonium pits are closely monitored for any deterioration due to aging.

The average age of plutonium pits in the U.S. arsenal is 20 years with the oldest being about 26 years old. The minimum pit lifetime is currently estimated to be 45 to 60 years, based largely on the modest changes observed in key properties of plutonium samples that are 40 years old.

The pits in the current nuclear weapons stockpile were manufactured at a facility that was shut down in 1989. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently reestablished a limited capability to produce pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The NNSA has proposed an additional Modern Pit Facility (MPF) that could produce, depending on the final design, either 125, 250 or 450 pits per year in single-shift operation, beginning in 2020.

Recent Congressional hearings and associated testimony have indicated that a MPF could be a major budget item for the NNSA. The APS Panel examined the technical issues associated with the MPF because such a large investment in permanent infrastructure is a demanding commitment of resources in the stewardship program.

The APS Panel concluded that there is insufficient technical reason to commit to a site or design for a MPF at this time. Deferring such decisions until at least 2006, the date that the NNSA initially proposed in evaluating the facility’s environmental impact, would allow Congress to more thoroughly consider key issues that could significantly affect overall decisions regarding an MPF:

• Pit facility design and site selection should not proceed until there are more precise estimates of future nuclear force structure.

• Site and design decisions should be deferred while the NNSA enhances the research program on plutonium aging. In particular, an experiment is underway which by 2006 will help determine whether pits can be expected to have a minimum lifetime of 60 years. With a 60-year minimum lifetime, the earliest that a pit might need to be replaced is 2038, and there may be no need to commit to a MPF for 15 more years.

• The various production options should be more thoroughly assessed. In particular, the cost and benefits should be evaluated for a small-scale production facility – capable of producing 50 to 80 pits a year in single-shift operation - that has the capability of a modular enhancement to larger production if necessary.

Skewness of Federal R & D Funding

Jeffrey Marque

The AIP’s FYI #73, dated June 9, 2004 and authored by Richard M. Jones, describes a report by the Science & Technology Policy Institute for the National Science Foundation. Entitled Vital Assets, the report gives comprehensive data on Federal funds for the conduct of research and development (R&D) in every state of the U.S. The report is available at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1824/

I found the report to be so overwhelmingly rich with data that I had to rely on the analysis and discussions within the report to make sense of the data. Some of the findings of the report are remarkable, and some quite disturbing:

1) In FY2002, 45% of all federal R&D funds provided to universities and colleges went directly to medical schools. The top ten states in overall ranking for federal funding in FY2002 have 48% of the nation’s medical schools. In FY2002, the fractions of federal R&D funds received by Vermont, Connecticut, and Missouri that went to their medical schools were, respectively, 74%, 72%, and 69% (!!)

2) In the current funding profile, approximately 2/3 of federal funds going to universities and colleges for the conduct of R&D is focused on life science. Only the remainder is for physics, chemistry, geology, engineering, energy, environmental science, education, homeland security, ,etc.

3) It is a myth that all federal R&D funds are conveyed via peer-reviewed project grants.

4) Only the universities and colleges in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas were successful in obtaining significant amounts of R&D monies from all the major federal R&D fund sources. The remaining states tend to specialize.

5) Even if we ignore all of the R&D funds going to the medical schools, Health and Human Services remains the largest provider of R&D to the nation’s universities and colleges. Next, in order of size of funding, come NSF, DOD, NASA, DOE, and USDA. Smaller amounts are from agencies with some of whose acronyms I am not familiar: DOC, DED, HUD, DOI, DOL, DOT, DVA, EPA, NRC, and SSA.

Twelve universities and colleges receiving federal R&D funds in FY2002 ranked in the top 20 regardless of whether or not analysis included R&D funds going to medical schools. Eighty institutions of higher education ranked among the top 100 in FY2002 independent of medical school funding. These numbers suggest that federally supported R&D is concentrated at only a few of the nation’s schools. “…while many of the nation’s universities and colleges received some federal R&D funds in FY2002, the majority of federally supported R&D activities were highly concentrated in only a few of them.”

There is also a concentration of funding within the medical schools. The top ten (out of 126) medical schools (in terms of federal funding) received 29% of the funds for all the medical schools. The top 20 schools garnered 47% of all the funds distributed to medical schools. So about 1/2 of the money goes to less than 1/6 of the schools.

The FYI mentioned at the beginning of this commentary quotes three questions raised in the report,

“Are biomedical and health care issues so clearly at the top of the nation’s agenda that they merit two-thirds of all federal funds provided to universities and colleges for the conduct of R&D?”

“Are other critical national needs that have substantial R&D components (such as environment, energy, homeland security, and education) getting the attention they require?”

“Are science and engineering students at universities and colleges that do not receive a notable share of federal R&D funds receiving a lower-quality education? Are their career opportunities hampered as a result?”

It seems to me that these four questions are largely rhetorical, with the implied answers being, respectively: no, no, yes, and yes.

There is one remark in the report that immediately had the ring of truth to this exhausted reader: “The ways in which one can use the information in this report to look at the distribution of federal R&D funds among the nation’s universities and colleges are virtually endless.” Yes! And I found the actual cuts through the data analyzed in the report to be seemingly endless, and I thus very much appreciated the report’s summaries and conclusions.

Having just complained about the endless cuts through the data, it occurred to me while reading the report that there was no analysis of per capita funding among the various states. Thus, for example, I wondered if part of the reason that California received so much funding and South Dakota so relatively little is because California’s population is so much greater. A per capita cut through the data might have been useful and may have served to blunt some of the extremes of the state-to-state comparisons.

In these comments, I have by no means covered all the topics in the report. For example, the report goes into considerable detail about the various ways that federal funds are disbursed other than peer-reviewed project grants.

I would summarize by encouraging people to read, or at least peruse, the report for the following reason: The extreme skewing of funding that is described in the report points to a future in which basic science R&D, a critical source of innovation and national security (both military and economic), has dried up. Combined with the trouble that so many excellent foreign scientists are having in their attempts to get visas to come to the U.S., the report gives pause for serious concern about the direction in which science in the U.S. is headed. The wealth of data provided in the report would be very useful to any citizen wanting to communicate with his or her representatives in Washington, D.C. about these issues.

Jeffrey Marque

Threats to American Preeminence in Innovation

Alvin M. Saperstein

The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News, No. 94: July 13, 2004 reports on a Congressional briefing in which speakers warned of threats to America's preeminence in innovation - and thus to our competitive edge in the world. Similar warnings have been voiced in many other public forums. The usual reason given is the declining number of American born and educated students who major in fields of science and technology. New to the list of reasons given is the growing strength (and competition) of foreign scientific and technological universities, research institutes, and business as well as the barriers erected to the importation  of foreign scientific-technological scholars and students ever since the 9/ 11 attacks awakened the public to the threat of international terrorism.   The usual fixes offered are more money for education and research and more supportive but streamlined governmental policies.

Without denying the importance of these reasons (and fixes) for the projected decline of American preeminence in scientific and technological innovation, I believe that other - more important - factors are operative. Successful innovation - in business, culture, government, and society, as well as in technology - depends upon the critical spirit engendered by science.  This critical spirit exists, to some extent, in all societies. But it is a product of the "age of enlightenment", and grew and prospered in Jeffersonian America more markedly than in other contemporary societies. The pervasiveness of that spirit, in America, seems to be waning. To the extent that it is waxing elsewhere, our cultural and economic preeminence is at risk.

 Science stands upon two legs: the belief in the reality of a rationally describable world "out there", and the imperative to seek and say maximal truth. Both of these legs are hobbled by the presently prevailing trends in American life: the prevalence of "sound bites", rather than extensive discourse, in all aspects of American life; the ubiquitous exposure of our growing youth to contradictory advertising and "stories" in all of the public media; and the blatant distortion of truth in our political institutions.   These all contribute significantly to the demise of scientific competence and interest among our youth (and their respect for science) - and hence of innovation in our future elites.

How is a child to acquire a belief in a unique, rationally operative, real world when constantly presented with mutually exclusive assertions about the world? E.g., the TV (before which he/she spends more time than before any teacher) alternates between saying that "Coke is the best" and "Pepsi is the best" in the advertisements accompanying shows featuring battles between werewolves and space ships. When a portion of school, play, and TV watching time is spent extolling "junk foods" while the health classes describe their ill effects. When the shelves next to the science section in the bookstore or public library are the astrology and psychic shelves? Or when church and family talk about a five-thousand year old Earth while the science teacher mumbles about a five-billion year old home planet?

Certainly we humans have always grown up with competing views of reality thrust at us. But the possibility - the imperative - of the common man manipulating the world around him/her, so as to become familiar with its reality, was always present.  (It was from that "common man" - and common experience - that technology and, eventually, science arose.) Increasingly, that manipulation - model building, tinkering, laboring in the environment - and familiarity is lacking. And the prevalence and strength of the, often reality denying, media has become an overwhelming influence in everyday life for millions of Americans.

Individual and societal commitment to truth seeking and truth telling is also a prerequisite for innovation. If attempts at innovation are not dispassionately examined and criticized, there is no way of saying whether or not they are successful - especially since, by its very nature, innovation attacks the conservatively held status quo. With no truth criteria for success, the spirit of innovation founders. Yet, in addition to stretching and distortion of truth in advertising media whose presence is ever growing, we also see growing disdain for truth seeking - and the more specific mores of science - in political and regulatory processes. We see attacks on both the substance and process of science - e.g., governmental denial of the scientific consensus on global climate change, and one-sided stacking of scientific review boards (cf., Science, 305, p.323, 16 July 2004).

This is not to say that the prevailing consensus, at any time, should be immune to attack. It is to say that government is not the appropriate agent for such necessary challenge. An example of what can happen when government attempts to become an agent of challenge is the wishful thinking represented by the nuclear isomer bomb: the attempt to fund the development of new weapons whose physical basis runs counter to consensus scientific reviews and paradigms.

Unfortunately, feeding more money, students, and foreign scholars to the body of American science will not ensure that it continues to stand tall in the world. Its legs continue to lose strength. We scientists can no longer just accept financial support from the society in which we are imbedded without being concerned with, and attempting to influence, the critically important cultural infrastructure upon which our viability, both as scientists and as a society, is absolutely dependent.

Alvin M. Saperstein



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