“I am very concerned that if we have to close a major facility our field is going to continue a spiral down,” says Tribble, of Texas A&M University in College Station. “It’s a very, very difficult situation.”
For the past 8 months, the US nuclear science advisory committee (NSAC) has been tasked with choosing between three leading US facilities under two flat-funding scenarios (one rising with inflation, the other flat in real terms but effectively falling). Both are well below the levels assumed by a plan mapped out by another panel chaired by Tribble in 2007, recommending all three facilities be supported (see chart, below, after the jump). The latest panel struggled with the projected loss of nuclear science jobs and discoveries that losing any of the three facilities would bring. Its report, which is expected to be released at the end of this week, stops short of recommending RHIC’s early closure, Tribble says. Still, that is the report’s effective message as it ranks the ion collider below a planned upgrade of the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Jefferson National Laboratory in Newport News, Virginia, and the construction of the Michigan State University’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), in East Lansing, both of which are already well under way. Tribble says that RHIC is the most complex and expensive of the three facilities to operate.
In a statement, Brookhaven officials acknowledged Tribble’s findings, but said they were hoping for modest budget increases that would avert the disaster scenario. “RHIC has been around 10 years and it’s got another 10 years to go,” insists Doon Gibbs, interim director of the BNL. Steve Vigdor, a physicist at Indiana University in Bloomington who just stepped down as BNL associate laboratory director, adds that there’s a lot of disappointment among RHIC users, but that they believe that they can still campaign to save the machine.
The committee set an upgrade at CEBAF as the top priority. Accelerating electrons to 12 GeV, it would allow them to probe the proton, mapping out the orbits of quarks inside, looking deeper inside the atomic particle than ever before. That left it a choice between RHIC, which explores the strong nuclear force, and FRIB, which will create never-before-seen isotopes for medical and astrophysical studies. RHIC lost not on scientific merit, but for budgetary reasons, Tribble tells Nature. FRIB’s construction has already received substantial funding from the state of Michigan, investments that will be lost to science if it doesn’t continue. Furthermore, if FRIB doesn’t continue, there still won’t be enough money to run RHIC and CEBAF for the full beamtime possible each year, whereas losing one of the two would enable FRIB to go ahead at full tilt.
The closure of RHIC is likely to have serious consequences for US leadership in physics, says nuclear physicist Bill Zajc, a RHIC user at Columbia University in New York. He says that despite rhetoric supporting basic research, US President Barack Obama’s administration has systematically shifted cash for science away from basic science towards applied areas such as energy and climate science, resulting in the current squeeze on nuclear physics. He says that if current policies continue, he’ll either go to work at the Large Hadron Collider, or leave nuclear physics altogether. “RHIC is a machine at the height of its scientific powers. Its performance has been spectacular. It’s a bizarre situation in which you have a machine working with unique capabilities and you close it down,” he says.