It happened over delicious guacamole

This weekend, Jodi and I traveled to Wisconsin to celebrate the 3rd birthday of our twin nephews.  Over a delicious bowl of guacamole, I engaged in a conversation with a couple who were friends with my sister-in-law (the mother of the twins). We quickly came to the recent Republican plan to cut the Federal budget across the board, including the unique national agencies that spend on basic research in science. Quick and important fact: this conversation was held over a delicious bowl of homemade guacamole, in a kitchen in Franklin, WI, a town firmly in the district of Paul Ryan (R-WI). Congressman Ryan is a leading Republican in the fight to shrink the Federal budget.

From my previous posts in this blog, you pretty much should know my feelings about the importance of Federal investment in basic research. However, I was the one stunned into silence as my sister-in-law’s friend said, “It’s outrageous that at a time when the U.S. wants to maintain scientific leadership it is trying to cut basic research from the Federal budget. There are no companies that want to support this kind of research anymore. There are no more Bell Labs. You never know what this research is going to bring, and you never do it for the reasons that it’s useful later.” That’s a paraphrase, but these are all things he told me over the course of many minutes. And I didn’t once have to get on the soapbox. He dominated the conversation, and I was so happy.

It felt good to be the scientist standing in the kitchen, munching on chips and guacamole, stunned into silence by the words of a very passionate citizen with a deep interest in science.

Slouching toward October

When voters went to the polls last year, they cast a vote for change. On many issues, said voters have been disappointed. Unable to seek common ground, our elected representatives have time and time again fallen far short of the will of the People. When I cast my vote, I was looking for candidates who would effect a change in attitude toward science and science policy in Washington, as well as here in California. Optimism is always high in the absence of fact, I suppose. Well, we’ve gone a year with a Democrat-controlled Congress; where does science funding stand?

Let’s look at the progress of the two basic science funding bills. These are the Appropriations Bills for Commerce, Science, (State), and Justice, and for Energy and Water. The former funds the National Science Foundation, the latter the Department of Energy. In FY2007, $3.797 billion was appropriated for DOE Science, and the Senate committee recommended $4.497 billion for FY08. That’s an 18% increase in spending on science, proposed by the Senate. The House, in the same bill, had recommended $4.514  billion, a 19% increase. As usual, the House put up a bit more than the Senate, and we all expected the difference to be worked out in Conference.

When did all this occur? Well, the House and Senate committees finished their work on these bills on June 6 and June 28 of this year, respectively. The House voted on the bill on July 17, but never voted on the bill. Therefore, it never made it to conference, and will (likely) not be on the President’s desk before the Oct. 1 deadline.

What happened in 2006, when the Congress was firmly in Republican hands?  Well, the House and Senate committees finished their work on May 17 and June 29 of 2006, respectively. Interestingly, the House was speedier last year, but the Senate took almost the same time (to the day!) as this year. This would imply that Republicans were faster in turning the legislation around for a vote. Let’s look at the increases they proposed, however. Time and money can be inversely proportional, after all.

Last year, the speedier House recommended a 14% increase over FY2006 levels, while the steady Senate recommended an 18% increase over FY2006. Interestingly, the Republican-controlled Senate recommended the same relative increase last year as this year, while this year’s House recommended a higher relative increase than last year’s.

But the end results last year were not encouraging. After four continuing resolutions, which happened because the election intervened, the resulting budgets were increased at about half the recommended levels, not reaching anywhere near these double-digit percent increases. This year, we see the same kind of aggressive proposals for increase, and yet here we are at the deadline. A stop-gap measure will likely be forthcoming, to keep government running. Science sits in the shadows, so much less sexy than a difficult war, jumbled foreign policy, Chinese imports, and even the right of a left-wing liberal lobbying group to put an ad in the NY Times. And yet, a successful basic research program is responsible for the modern foundations of our society, in which blackberries carry last-minute information to staffers about upcoming votes, websites attract donors and gather petitions, and global positioning helps Washington newbies find their way to posh cafes in Georgetown.

Let’s hope that while we all continue to suck the cream out of the pail, we don’t forget to fund the cow. Can either party, separately or together, deliver on the public promise of support for basic research?

Go Deep Field?

A friend of mine recently sent me a summary of a relevant portion of H.R. 2641, the FY2008 House Energy and Water Appropriations bill. In the more common tongue, this is the budget proposal from Congress for the Department of Energy, an agency that funds much of the U.S. basic research. Let’s go through some of the hard numbers, and then see some of the interesting language from this spending proposal.

First and foremost: what do the numbers tell us about Congress’ intent for basic research? Overall, the DOE budget is proposed to be $4.514 billion. This should be compared to the $3.797 billion enacted for FY07 in the late appropriation, and represents an increase of $717 million dollars (+19%). The President requested $4.397 billion, so the House recommendation is still 3% more than the request.

In my own field, the President’s request is met: $782 million. This includes an increase from $30 million to $60 million the R&D budget for the International Linear Collider (ILC). However, the language of the bill notes that ” . . . growth in the estimated cost for the International Linear Collider (ILC) means that the schedule for this major high energy physics facility, which the United States aspires to host, will be delayed. Implementation of the Dark Energy Mission without further delay can provide significant intellectual progress on the question of dark energy while further study is done on the ILC.” The House has taken Undersecretary for Science Orbach’s statement about the ILC being a mid 2020s project rather than a mid 2010s project and turned that into direct language about the project being delayed. The delay is attributed to “growth in the estimated cost”.

I find this last point ironic. Until this year’s release of the Global Design Effort (GDE) for the ILC, there was no official estimate. Reference to “growth” in the estimate is misleading. No official cost estimate was ever, to my knowledge, given to Congress (or anybody else). We all speculated about the cost, with private estimates ranging from $3 billion to $20 billion. The GDE proposes something around $6-7 billion. Sadly, this language makes it seem like the HEP community has been slipping on the cost estimate, when in reality the first and only such estimate appeared earlier this year, between budget cycles.

The second point here is also notable: a delayed ILC is a prime opportunity to proceed full blast with the Joint Dark Energy  Mission (JDEM). JDEM, long delayed for reasons not clear to me (but likely having to do with the differing proposals and the hack and slash budget tactics going on in NASA science), is spoken about strongly in this bill: “The Committee directs the Department to select, using competitive procedures, a mission science team and approach as soon as possible and proceed with a dark energy mission with a launch in fiscal year 2013. As part of this, the Committee directs DOE to explore other launch options, including cooperative international approaches and the procurement of private launch services, to get the Dark Energy Mission into space.”

The Energy and Water Committee is getting really serious. In short: ditch NASA for launch and go it alone, by whatever means necessary. The strongest point is made slightly earlier in the bill: “The Administration’s insistence that this mission be held hostage to NASA’s mission agenda sends the clear signal that space science is the purview of NASA regardless of the scientific questions to be addressed. If space science is the special preserve of NASA within the U.S. Government, then all funding for such missions should be provided by NASA and the Dark Energy Mission should proceed on that basis with NASA providing the funding for all work at DOE national laboratories selected by NASA for participation.” Here, the Committee wants to clearly take a differing position with the Administration. They want space science to be freed from the grip of NASA’s dwindling science budget, and they clearly believe in the case for understanding Dark Energy if they want to use it as the wedge to split space science from the space agency. While a role is clearly envisioned for NASA, it’s not one of leadership on the project.

If this becomes law, it will setup an interesting juxtaposition with experiments like GLAST, which are really the existing model for NASA/DOE partnership. Will DOE really be getting into the business of soliciting launch proposals, as well as science proposals?

For all the gory details, see House Report 110-185 on HR2641.


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Finding consensus

For the past five months, my professional life has been a roller-coaster ride. My research is now a constant source of stress, as deadlines rapidly approach and MANY questions need to be answered. Adding to this is a broader concern about the future of my own field in this country. High-energy physics, a field which the U.S. helped build to its modern state after World War II, has helped to put us in a position of world leadership in technology, education, and basic research. HEP inspires young men and women with its big questions about the origin and nature of space, time, energy, and matter. It tantalizes the growing mind with hints and clues to those questions: Maxwell’s equations, relativity, the Standard Model. Even those who don’t remain in the field take their skills in problem solving, electronics, engineering, and computing to other fields and into industry.

But the pipeline is threatened, and not just in this field. In almost all fields of the physical sciences, the U.S. is either at a cross-roads or in decline. This is not because there is a lack of compelling problems to solve. Quite the contrary. In particle physics, this is “a time rivaled ONLY by the excitement at the turn of the 20th century”: The challenges of dark matter and dark energy, the mystery of the matter/antimatter asymmetry, the curiosity of unification and the wild multiplicity of fundamental building blocks all present us with an opportunity to pursue aggressive programs in astrophysics, collider physics, neutrino physics . . . the list goes on and on.

Within particle physics, it’s pretty clear that the “Large Hadron Collider”: at CERN is the highest priority program in the next decade. It has been a challenge to this field to conceive it, build it, and soon, run it. Thousands of particle physicists from all over the globe are converging on CERN, more with each passing month, as the ATLAS and CMS collaborations get ready to catch the collisions of the great LHC physics engine.

What is less clear is what happens to us all after the LHC. It may seem odd to worry about what to do after an experiment which (a) hasn’t started running yet and (b) is expected to last close to 20 years. However, particle physics is a field in which long-term vision and a commitment to the questions are critical to forging a path into the unknown. Even for experiments that are comparatively small when juxtaposed with the LHC, we plan and worry and test and build years in advance of running the actual experiment.

The thing that weighs most on me now is that the field *feels* like it’s beginning to fracture. In the “wake of the EPP2010 report”:, I have had many conversations with my colleagues about our field and the three-letter acronym that is becoming a four-letter word with some physicists: ILC, the International Linear Collider. I’ve even had a fight with Jodi about this thing. The argument always centers around two issue, the very issues the EPP2010 committee worried about: will the ILC gobble up the budgets of all other programs (the “all the eggs in one basket” argument), and how do we trains students and post-docs on an experiment that is perhaps a decade away (the “students and post-docs can’t get jobs if they don’t work on a running experiment” argument)?

I am not trivializing these arguments. They are **absolutely critical questions** that all of us must answer. Tackling them will take professional courage and a lot of ingenuity, and that is what I want all of my colleagues to understand. As a post-doc, I deeply understand the problem of advancing a career while also keeping a focus on the future. However, I also understand that if we never try, we will never achieve. As a person who has been recently involved in neutrino physics, I understand the fear that a big ILC budget will eat the little budgets of other projects. However, if we stand up and state what is important to us, with the understanding that the ILC represents a nexus for advancing our field on many fronts (science, technology, and engineering), we can have our small science while making investments and commitments to a large, central project.

It doesn’t have to be about giving up the science we love for the science we’re told to do. Many of us have felt for a decade that the ILC is critical in understanding the mysteries that could be revealed by the LHC. I am beginning to understand the importance of the ILC as a discovery engine, complementary to the LHC but also independently powerful in its breadth. Now is the time to work with the whole field, and other fields of science, and the American people, and talk to them about the science we do and the science we will do, if we have the tools. Now is the time to understand the reasons for the ILC, to understand how a central project can benefit the smaller programs, and to offer the public and our fellow scientists a chance to share in the wonder of particle physics. Most importantly, now is the time to stand up to our funding agencies and declare the importance of the physics experiments we have planned, how they fit into a schedule of priorities, and how we can pursue them. If we do not do this last thing, then the funding agents will make autocratic decisions about the future of this field.

The DOE, for instance, has not had a new initiative in the last 3-5 years. Many projects have been cancelled either by committee or by unilateral action. These agencies are supposed to serve the science, not the other way around. Before we can chart a road built on clear scientific consensus, we have to also work to engage the funding agencies and show them that there is science we cannot afford not to fund.