For decades, United States high-energy physics labs have been at the forefront of high profile - and expensive - efforts to probe the nature of matter. Now, as labs overseas begin to overshadow facilities here, researchers are trying to find ways to keep the US program free of cobwebs.
A panel of scientists from inside and outside the field says the US should make the next major particle collider on the horizon - the International Linear Collider - the centerpiece of its high-energy physics efforts. Washington should announce its desire to host the collider, if it's built. It should support a robust, related research and development program so if the machine finds a home elsewhere, US scientists will still have ready entree.
"When we looked at the status of high-energy physics in the US, we were very sobered," says Harold Shapiro, who chaired the National Research Council panel that looked at the issue. "The country had no compelling follow-on" to research programs that will wind down by 2009. Indeed, he says, to an outsider, the country's current approach almost looks like an exit strategy.
Meanwhile, the center of gravity for high-energy physics experiments is shifting from the US to Europe, where the European Organization for Nuclear Research is bringing a new collider on line next year that will push beyond the frontiers explored by current US colliders.
Initial cost estimates for the two-step, multibillion international linear collider project are slated to be completed by the end of this year. The initial stage would launch subatomic particles from opposite ends of a 19-mile-long tunnel and steer them to collide at detectors in the middle. From the collision debris the detectors sense, scientists hope to gain new insights into the nature of mass, perhaps discover evidence of extra dimensions to the universe, and probe the nature of dark matter, which pervades the universe.
Eventually, the collider would be extended to some 30 miles long, and the collisions would occur with twice the energies the first stage would achieve.
Proponents say they're approaching this project mindful of the bitter lessons from the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was canceled in 1992 after construction on its Texas site had begun.
This time around, the project is international from the start, and, at least for now, the NRC panel is calling for an increase in funding to pay for initial R&D efforts. The panel, in a report released on Thursday, seeks $500 million over the next five years. Over the next seven years, the panel says, the particle-physics budget should be increased by 2 percent to 3 percent after inflation to foot the R&D bill.
Kei Koizumi, who tracks science spending for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that as long as Congress puts new money into the effort, physicists should be able to avoid the civil war that nearly broke out over the SSC.
Indeed, a project leader at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory resigned from the lab, and is leaving high-energy physics in protest over the US Department of Energy's emphasis on the ILC.
Rather than turning premier US research facilities solely into R&D labs, G. William Foster, who headed Fermilab's "Proton Driver Project," argued, they should be allowed to work in smaller scale projects that can generate good physics results even as they serve as potential test beds for a next-generation collider.
The stance is understandable, given the time and effort people have put into such projects, acknowledges Neal Lane, a former presidential science adviser and Rice University physicist who took part in the NRC study.
"But I must say in discussions we've had, we've heard a lot of enthusiasm" from the high-energy physics community for the approach the NRC recommends, he says.