Park on the Mark

Bob Park is normally funny to read every Friday, either because you agree with him rabidly or because you don’t agree with him but you find his grouchiness lovable . This week, he’s just plain on target. Here are his opening paragraphs, verbatim:

Science-policy reps were patting each other on the back in August when
President Bush signed the bipartisan America COMPETES Act in response to
the NAS report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. It was meant to keep
America competitive by boosting basic science, including a doubling of
funding for NSF and the DOE Office of Science. Six months later, the most
basic of all the sciences, high-energy physics, is in a death spiral.
Fermilab faces major layoffs, the neutrino oscillation experiment, NOvA,
which was expected to be the lab’s principle activity after the Tevatron
shuts down, is terminated. Three quarters of the funding for the
International Linear Collider is cut. The US again stiffed ITER on our
share of the fusion program. The NSF increase was pared down to 1
percent. Meanwhile, in a letter to the research community, House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said her “commitment to the innovation agenda remains
strong and steadfast.” Try spending that.

Why would fragile, self-replicating collections of atoms, trapped on a
tiny planet for a few dozen orbits about an undistinguished star among
countless other stars in one of billions of galaxies, spend their orbits
trying to understand how it happened? Others claim to know all the
answers, but the only way to know is to experiment – and they haven’t done

You can find the rest of his column, and all previous columns, here:

Summer of Nuts, but a Winter of Insane

I thought that this past summer was nuts, but now I realize it was just the packet of sunflower seeds to this winter’s vacuum-packed can of fancy cashews. With the omnibus bill a living threat to the U.S. science program, the consequences have started to land on the table. Remember – the goal of science is to do science. If you employ a thousand people for a project, if the science goes away then all the people do, too. Find a way to target layoffs, and you might keep the science moving while leaving a fraction of the workforce totally or temporarily jobless. It’s a terrible but real balancing act that businesses, and now our nation’s scientific effort, go through.

NYTimes_FNAL_Layoffs-smallThe New York Times had a short but detailed article on the consequences to Fermilab, currently one of two particle physics labs in the U.S. and, in the future, the only planned such laboratory. Fermilab was hit doubly hard because it was to be the Nation’s hub for International Linear Collider efforts, with a plan to host a bid to sight that window on the Terascale. In addition, one of its near-term projects – NOvA – was zeroed out. The article says that there are plans to resurrect the funding next year, but I am having a hard time remembering the last time a canceled experiment in one year was brought back in another. It’s happens to TV shows – witness “Firefly”, the only canceled show to become a motion picture – but not in Congress. That money becomes somebody else’s entitlement, regardless of the peer review process that was taking place to justify the money for science. Taking it back is nearly impossible.

I am left with many questions before this Christmas. What will happen to SLAC? The Director will address us all in early January on the plans to absorb the budget shock. Where did the money go? Who benefited from this hidden omnibus process? What staffers moved what lines around to save projects for their boss’ district, or what staffer decided an additional dime spent on science was a dime wasted? It’s inconceivable that a Congressperson could have made these decisions alone; a $500 billion dollar budget is hundred of pages long. They have help on these matters, so who did this to us? Who cut off the national science program at the ankles?

Most important, how do we make people realize what’s been taken from them? How do we let science teachers know that there will be less here in the U.S. that they can point their eager students to as they start learning about quantum weirdness, or Einstein, or string theory? How do we let mom and pop know that the underpinning of their mobile phone, their satellite dish, their GPS, their computer hard drive, is suffering? How do we let Congress know the cost to the nation?

I would call on all of you to write your local news, to write to Congress, and let them know how this affects you. I especially encourage students to do this. You carry more weight than a professor because your choice to do science here in the U.S. is threatened, and thus the future of your education is threatened. Congress may not understand science, but they understand a student whose future is cut short by their decisions.

Ironically, at a time when unemployment is a concern, when innovation and competition are at stake, when the future of this nation’s economy is under doubt, Congress makes a premiere science institution, one of many affected by this budget, wish employees a happy holiday and at the same time suggests they may not have jobs when they come back. Way to go, Congress. Way to save America’s jobs.

Roll Call!

This morning I had a short chat with a student at SLAC. During the chat, it was mentioned that certain Presidential candidates didn’t event vote on the omnibus bill. This got me thinking about who did and who did not vote for it, and about who voted for and agaist. So, I hit the Library of Congress legislation search engine (THOMAS) and got the data [1] [2].

Let’s pick out some interesting facts. Starting with the Senate – the smaller of the two bodies – we make some interesting observations:

  • None of the Presidential candidates who are also Senators voted: Clinton, Obama, Dodd, Biden, McCain. Personally, I’ll take this as a vote against science by all of these candidates. No, it’s not rational – I understand that this was a huge all-or-nothing bill. But how can these people sit in front of us and claim to be worthy of higher office when they cannot even fulfill their current legislative duties on such a critical matter?
  • Those who voted against the measure (17) were:
    Allard (R-CO)
    Barrasso (R-WY)
    Bayh (D-IN)
    Burr (R-NC)
    Chambliss (R-GA)
    Coburn (R-OK)
    Crapo (R-ID)
    DeMint (R-SC)
    Ensign (R-NV)
    Enzi (R-WY)
    Feingold (D-WI)
    Graham (R-SC)
    Hagel (R-NE)
    Inhofe (R-OK)
    Isakson (R-GA)
    McCaskill (D-MO)
    Voinovich (R-OH)

I am pleased to see one of my perennial favorites, Feingold, stand against this. He probably didn’t do it for science, but he did it.

  • Of the members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, all but one voted for the bill. Only Wayne Allard voted against it. This is the same committee that up until the omnibus process put into the appropriations bill an increase of 18% for the Office of Science.
  • All members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, and Justice voted for the bill.
  • Senator Feinstein of California was not even present for the vote.

Turning to the more populous House, we can try to tease out similar facts:

  • There were 154 “nays”. Among them were Congresswoman Biggert, whose district include Argonne National Lab; Congressman Ehlers, a physicist by training;
  • Interestingly, Congresswoman Eshoo – in whose district SLAC is located – voted for it.
  • Of the members of the House Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, all the Democrats voted for the bill, except Congresswoman Hooley who didn’t vote at all; all but one of the Republicans voted against it.
  • Of the members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, all but two (both Republicans) voted for the bill. This is the same group of people that originally committed to an 18% increase for the Office of Science.
  • Of the members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science, State, Justice, and Commerce, all Democrats voted for the bill; all but one Republican voted against it. Interestingly, Congressman Honda and Congressman Schiff, strong supporters of basic research funding in the past, were among those Democrats who helped pass it.
  • Congressman Kucinich and Congressman Tancredo voted against it; so far, the only Presidential candidates to vote AT ALL, and both opposed it.
  • Congressman Holt, also a physicist by training,voted for the bill.

[1] Senate Roll Call
[2] House Roll Call

Absence of Light

One day ago, the unthinkable happened: Congress abandoned all signs of reason and passed an omnibus spending bill that gutted science in this nation. Much is clear, and much is not.

What’s clear are the facts. The Office of Science was appropriated $4.05 billion, and then asked to apply a 0.91 rescission to that number, bringing the actual allotment down to  $3.69 billion.  In  last year’s budget, the Office of Science was appropriated $3.8 billion – meaning that this year, science actually got a 3% CUT over last year. At a time when industry and academia was crying for a growing envelope for the physical sciences as a means to save U.S. innovation, the Congress ignored them all and went with a reduction in DOE, NSF, and NIST – the major supporters of physical science research.

In DOE, U.S. participation in ITER, an international experimental fusion reactor, was zeroed. NOVA, a neutrino program at Fermilab and a driving project into the future of that laboratory, was zeroed out. ILC research was cut by 3/4, from a proposed $60 million just a month ago to $15 million now. If you do the math, you realize that since the first quarter of FY08 is now over, and $15 million represents one quarter’s worth of spending when you plan originally for $60 million, ILC has no more money for the rest of the year.

It’s a disaster. In fact, Leon Lederman of Fermilab, who received the nobel prize for his discovery of the muon neutrino, who discovered the existence of a third generation of quark, and who has worked tirelessly for decades to reach out to the public about science, has been quoted as saying, ” I’ve been around this lab since it was all farmland, and I can’t remember a crisis of this severity.”

What is unclear is what happens now. Clearly, this community needs to shout loudly at the Congress for two reasons. The first is to realize that they have not only just endangered the nation’s scientific enterprise, but also the careers of hundreds of young physicists rising up through the education pipeline. They have likely just created a large community of jobless, highly skilled workers – just what this country DOESN’T need right now. The second is simply so that they know that we are real people, who are real loud, and real pissed.

Apart from the question of a response from the community, the damage to the field is still being evaluated. While the targeted programs are clearly in trouble, zeroing them has implications for staffing levels at all national laboratories who support those people. In addition, since the U.S. is now no longer involved in several large programs, many physicists just found themselves with no research programme.  Other programs cannot absorb those people; where will they go? And of course, the biggest question of all: since money will need to be moved around, who gets to run less, or maybe even gets shut down completely, just to keep the lights on everywhere?