As a massive atom smasher powers up, 'Big Science' moves away from the US
The first trial of the Large Hadron Collider on Wednesday signals a shift to Europe of high-energy physics.
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For the US, this meant that physicists wouldn’t have to ask Congress to help bankroll directly a big-science project built and operated overseas – a proposition many would see as dead on arrival. Instead, researchers say, the US in effect received access to those facilities – and a seat at the planning table for new ones – because along with its high-caliber scientists, it had world-class labs open to overseas researchers.Skip to next paragraph
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"There was some balance across the regions," says Pier Oddone, who heads Fermilab. But, he adds, budget cuts closed high-energy accelerators at Stanford University and Cornell University earlier this year. Fermilab’s Tevatron, currently the most powerful accelerator operating, is slated to shut down in two years with no replacement in sight.
"This system is becoming unstable," he says. "In terms of bringing the world to the US, enabling the world to work with us to explore this physics, we certainly have taken a step back." The danger, he and others say, is that a paucity of world-class labs in the US would make it more difficult to sit at the leadership table and threatens to leave the US with little to offer others as a way to ensure US access to key laboratories abroad.
Moreover, researchers overseas point to a lack of stable funding in the US that is turning the country from widely courted partner to an "Ugly Betty" for some big-science projects.
Referring to budget cuts last December that all but eliminated US funding for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), what happened "has severely damaged the credibility of the US as a partner," says Albrecht Wagner, chairman of the board at DESY, Germany’s high-energy physics lab in Hamburg. In an e-mail, he explains that "seen from abroad, the cuts were caused by a fight between the Congress and the White House. They had nothing to do with science strategy" and sent "very destructive signals to funding agencies and governments around the world."
He adds that while European governments also have annual budget cycles, those governments still honor Europe-wide commitments, such as those needed for the LHC or ITER, even when governments change hands.
In grappling with growing scientific clout among countries overseas as well as with home-grown problems, the US high-energy physics community is having to redefine US leadership in light of the growing scientific competition from abroad, as well as in light of the nature of the questions the field is trying to solve.
Among other aspects, the US cedes the high-energy frontier to the LHC, at least for now, and urges strong US support for future upgrades to the accelerator. At the same time, the US science community puts emphasis for ensuring world-class programs in two related fields – the particle-astrophysics frontier and what it terms the “intensity” frontier, where very intense particle beams are used to tackle some of the fundamental questions about the universe while building a research and development base for a new generation of smaller but more powerful accelerators.
The recommendations are contained in a blueprint for the coming decade that the physics community issued in May.
For more LHC coverage, check out:
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