The future of nuclear physics research and discovery science in the United States lies in the hands of Congress as they struggle to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year.
With the fiscal budget for 2014 currently in limbo, deep cuts are expected in federal programs across the board and without exception. A 2007 Long Range Plan released by the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) entitled The Frontiers of Nuclear Science, was based on the prediction that funding for the physical sciences would double between Fiscal Year 2008 and Fiscal Year 2018.
In light of projected budgetary restraints, the US Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Physics and the National Science Foundation (NSF) charged the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) with updating the priorities of nuclear research in the United States.
“The question that one had to ask is, in the short term and the long term, where do you want the nuclear physics field to be?” Professor Robert Tribble of Texas A&M University, head of the NSAC subcommittee, said. “You have a situation where there is no clear unanimous choice, but the best you can do is come up with, not a clear unanimous choice, but a slight majority that suggests one way versus another.”
Given this task, the NSAC subcommittee was unanimous in reaffirming the proposed direction indicated by the 2007 LRP and emphasized the effects a severe loss of funding could have on the field.
“If any one part is excised,” the report stated. “It will be a significant loss to the US in terms of scientific accomplishments, scientific leadership, development of important new applications, and education of a technically skilled workforce to support homeland security and economic development.”
It fell to the subcommittee to prioritize between the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Jefferson National Laboratory, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory or the construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University based on which would advance nuclear physics research in the United States the most.
The NSAC committee compared two budget scenarios, one in which there was no growth and the other in which there was a modest growth.
The modest growth scenario would require significant cuts in operational time at the facilities, but can still sustain the momentum of the nuclear science program in the US without losing any of the major science or the ability to employ new researchers while continuing to build the new facility at FRIB.
In a no-growth scenario, there would not be adequate funding to maintain the nation’s two facilities that are used to study the structure of nucleons and the properties of hot-dense nuclear matter, an important step in quantifying the origin, evolution and structure of visible matter in the universe, the goal of nuclear physicists the world over.
If this is the case, the priority in funding will go to the development of FRIB and the further upgrading of CEFAB at Jefferson Lab. Though RHIC would not be shuttered, its progress toward future and current research would be stunted.
“If the program were stopped here it would have a serious impact on the lab, and what would be lost is leadership in nuclear physics,” said Doon Gibbs, Interim Laboratory Director at Brookhaven National Lab.
A reduction in funding to RHIC would have farther-reaching effects than just Brookhaven. BNL and RHIC receive extensive support from foreign investors, especially from the RIKEN Institute in Japan, warns NSAC Chair Donald Geesaman, from the Argonne National Laboratory.
“If people see that, despite large investments from other countries in the RHIC facility, they can’t count on a return on that investment, then they might decide that’s not where they want to go in the future,” he said.
“In a time of sequestration there’s much more uncertainty, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand the far-reaching consequences of basic research, and that you can’t yo-yo it,” Geesaman said. “It has to move forward in a relatively stable way for it to be most effective.”