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Dark Tunnel Ahead for Light Sources

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Science  08 Aug 1997:
Vol. 277, Issue 5327, pp. 756-757
DOI: 10.1126/science.277.5327.756


Surrounded by flags and balloons, U.S. politicians last week celebrated the end of a 30-month war between Congress and the White House over how to cut taxes and reduce the federal deficit. The agreement also marks a return to bipartisan support for federal R&D spending and eases fears in the science community that major research programs may be sacrificed to balance the budget. “It's an extraordinary reconvergence,” says an ebullient Jack Gibbons, the president's science adviser. But for some areas of research, a balanced budget may not be cause for celebration.

The prospect of level spending through 2002 has led the Department of Energy (DOE) to examine the fate of its four synchrotron facilities. The review has put users in a decidedly somber mood. “They are slicing the salami thinner and thinner,” says Brian Kincaid, who directs one of the new facilities, the $100 million Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “All the facilities will cross into the red within a year or two—and there will be layoffs and reduced operations if the budget is flat.”

Advanced Light Source Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Berkeley, California

Completed: 1993 1997 Operating Cost: $18 million Technical Specs: High-brightness soft x-ray and ultraviolet radiation Number of users: 300

National Synchrotron Light Source Brookhaven National Laboratory Upton, New York

Completed: 1981 1997 Operating Cost: $25 million Technical Specs: X-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared radiation Number of users: 2260

Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory Stanford Linear Accelerator Center Menlo Park, California

Completed: 1973 1997 Operating Cost: $17 million Technical Specs: X-ray and ultraviolet beams Number of users: 600

Advanced Photon Source Argonne National Laboratory Argonne, Illinois

Completed: 1996 1997 Operating Cost: $76 million Technical Specs: Bright x-ray beams Number of users: 1300

About one-third of DOE's $650 million budget for basic energy sciences goes to operate the synchrotrons, where researchers from a wide range of disciplines use beams of x-rays to probe the structure of matter. But department officials says it's not enough to keep all four facilities operating at their current capacity and plan a new generation of machines. As a result, DOE managers are faced with a painful decision: whether to close a facility so that the remainder will prosper and a future generation can be born. They have pulled together a panel of 17 scientists and asked for their no-holds-barred advice. “It's going to be an absolute and total bloodbath,” predicts one panel member.

DOE officials insist they have little choice. “It's a combination of two new sources coming on line in the 1990s and a budget that is likely to be flat,” says Pat Dehmer, who directs DOE's basic energy sciences division. The 4-year-old Berkeley facility and the $812 million Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, which opened last year, are members of a third generation of DOE-supported machines that produce brighter x-rays than their older siblings, the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Synchrotron Radiation Lab at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. And many researchers say that the United States must begin thinking about a fourth-generation device to maintain its global leadership.

The crisis facing the light sources, which use x-rays to examine the structure of everything from semiconductors to designer drugs, is testament to their success. While their neutron-scattering cousins have suffered several setbacks in recent years (see p. 761), synchrotrons have entered an exciting era thanks to the new facilities and new applications. “Compared to neutron scattering, this field is not suffering,” says Robert Birgeneau, dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who chairs the light-source panel. “This is a rich, vital, extraordinarily active field,” adds David Bishop, a Lucent Technologies physicist and panel member drawn from outside the synchrotron community.

But the cost of operating the two new machines, and the continued high demand for the older facilities, is outstripping the $200 million allocated annually to operate the synchrotrons. The sense of foreboding is greatest at Stanford and Brookhaven, home of the two older machines. Brookhaven can hear “kind of a sucking sound. … There really has been a brain drain” to the new facilities, says Grant Bunker, an associate professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who directs a user group at Argonne's APS. “Right now [APS] is where the action is.” The new machines, adds Edwin Westbrook, an x-ray crystallographer and director of an APS structural biology team, “are two orders of magnitude brighter than the second-generation sources.”

But while some users are attracted to the added brightness of the APS or the soft x-rays at Berkeley's Advanced Light Source, Stanford and Brookhaven officials say their facilities are attracting new researchers from disciplines such as biology that have not been heavy users in the past. Although the number of materials science users at the Brookhaven synchrotron has declined to 900 from a peak of about 1100 in 1993, life science users have grown from a few dozen in 1990 to more than 600 in 1996, according to lab documents submitted to the Birgeneau panel. “They both have huge and well-satisfied user communities,” says Lucent's Bishop. “It would be easy if one place was a real clunker, but none of them is like that.”

Instead, panel members must wrestle with a number of more subtle factors. Researchers in the Northeast, for example, complain that closing Brookhaven's machine would discourage synchrotron use in their region by requiring researchers to make long trips. “Proximity is important” for those experiments that are not dependent on high brilliance, says Keith Hodgson, a Stanford chemist who represents the Stanford facility to the panel. “You can send your students and samples [a short distance] more easily and cheaply.”

That leaves panel members debating whether to recommend that DOE sacrifice the large number of users at one of the second-generation facilities for cutting-edge work at the newer ones. They must also weigh which disciplines are likely to produce the best science—and therefore, which facilities should be preserved to ensure that work progresses. “We have to assess [which research] is the most important,” says Birgeneau—no simple matter given the diversity of uses for both newer and older synchrotrons.

Some wonder about the wisdom of trying to carve funds from operating costs to develop a fourth-generation source. “It's not on the radar screen—it was added [to the panel's charter] as an afterthought,” scoffs Berkeley's Kincaid. But Stanford's Hodgson disagrees. “It would be foolish not to pursue it,” he says. “You've got to invest in the future.”

Whatever balance is struck, few support the notion of closing one of the machines in the short term. “Most people say it would be premature,” says Gopal Shenoy, who heads APS's experimental facilities division. “You need to operate the new facilities for 5 to 10 years and then look to a fourth generation.”

One way out of the budget bind may be to seek money from other agencies. Dehmer's basic energy sciences group funds primarily physical scientists, and the growing presence of biologists and environmental researchers has sparked some grumbling among the traditional synchrotron users. Perhaps the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency could help shoulder a share of the beamline costs, if not the operating costs, one panel member says.

So while lawmakers head home for a monthlong recess to trumpet the new budget agreement, the Birgeneau panel will be trying to reconcile competing needs within a limited budget. The committee's recommendations will be hammered out in meetings this month and delivered at the end of September. “It's painful, but we can appreciate the fact that scientists have been asked,” says Bishop. “If we duck this, someone less informed is going to decide—and it would be the politicians.”

With additional reporting by Robert F. Service.

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