RHIC Gets Nod Over JLab in Worst-Case DOE Scenario

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Science  24 Jun 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5730, pp. 1852-1853
DOI: 10.1126/science.308.5730.1852a

Earlier this year, the Department of Energy posed an agonizing question to a panel of nuclear physicists: If its budget doesn't get any better, which of two major DOE facilities should be shut down? Last week the panel delivered a verdict, showing a “slight preference” for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, over the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in Newport News, Virginia. But adopting that choice, it warned DOE officials, would create a damaging rift within the nuclear science community.

“It would be a dagger in the heart of international nuclear physics if this would happen,” says Tony Thomas, JLab's chief scientist. “It would create a deep chasm within the U.S. nuclear science community as well as an international chasm.” And the so-called winner is barely more joyful. “It would be really bad if we succumbed to the temptation to break into camps,” says Sam Aronson, associate director for high-energy and nuclear physics at Brookhaven. “We've always managed to get past difficult budget situations; we should not take the opportunity to fight with each other.”

The trouble began in February after President George W. Bush proposed cutting nuclear physics at DOE by more than 8%, to $371 million. That drop would translate into a drastic reduction in run times for the two main nuclear physics facilities in the United States, RHIC at Brookhaven and CEBAF at JLab. And although Congress seems inclined to restore the cuts this year, DOE is expecting lean times for at least the rest of the decade. So in March, DOE asked its nuclear science advisory committee for help in dealing with such a scenario (Science, 29 April, p. 615).

At risk.

A continued tight budget could force DOE to shut its Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.


The budget outlook gave the panel little flexibility, says Texas A&M physicist Robert Tribble, who chaired the subcommittee that made the call: “There's simply no way we can sustain JLab and RHIC operations at meaningful levels and still have a future.” The panel's “slight preference” for keeping RHIC alive was based on the fact that the instrument was still in the “discovery phase” after creating the quark-gluon plasma (Science, 22 April, p. 479).

The potential for a schism is based on the fact that RHIC and CEBAF do very different types of nuclear-physics experiments. The former uses heavy ions to probe the conditions of nuclear matter in the early universe, whereas the latter uses electron beams to look at things such as the structure of the proton. Shutting down one would deprive a large chunk of the U.S. nuclear science community of a place to do research, dividing it into haves and have-nots. Picking one branch of research at the expense of another is divisive, says JLab's Thomas.

The silver lining in the dark clouds gathering over nuclear science is a positive reaction from Congress so far this year. The House of Representatives has approved a 2006 spending bill that brings much of DOE's nuclear science budget close to current levels (Science, 27 May, p. 1241). Last week, a Senate panel added back even more, according to Dennis Kovar, DOE's associate director in charge of nuclear physics. At those funding levels—appropriately adjusted for inflation—Tribble says that DOE need not shut down a facility, although he warns that run times at the facilities would still suffer. And level funding won't help a major new experiment being planned. The Rare Isotope Accelerator, says the panel, “can proceed only with a significant influx of new money.”

An anemic budget would have ramifications for the next generation of U.S. nuclear scientists, too, say physicists. “If you close either [RHIC or JLab] at this time,” says David Armstrong, a nuclear physicist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, “I in good conscience could not advise my students to pursue a career in nuclear science.”

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