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Italian particle physics facility scuttled by funding woes

Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo.

An Italian project aiming to build a new particle accelerator near Rome, called SuperB, will either have to be abandoned or drastically scaled back for lack of funding. The project has failed to attract enough international partners to pay its full cost, and the Italian government yesterday made it clear that it will not cover the gap.

The SuperB project was officially launched by Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in October 2011. It is supposed to build a ‘B factory’ — a particle accelerator in which electrons and positrons collide to produce heavy particles called B mesons, whose decay could enable researchers to explore beyond the standard model of particle physics.

The B factory would have featured an underground, 1.3-kilometre-long ring in the south-east part of Rome, close to the city’s Tor Vergata University. Its cost was initially estimated at €600 million (US$780 million), and the Italian Ministry for Research contributed an initial investment of €250 million. The rest of the budget was supposed to come from international partners that the INFN hoped to bring on board after the project was launched. “That didn’t happen,” says INFN president Fernando Ferroni, “and frankly it couldn’t happen, not on that scale at least. Normally the main partner is expected to cover at least 60 or 70% of the budget in this kind of projects.” Ferroni became INFN president when the project was being launched, and was not involved in its proposal.

In the meantime, an international study group tasked with reviewing the project’s budget has raised the price tag up to almost €1 billion. “We met with the minister, and he told us that the government will not contribute more than €250 million,” says Ferroni. “And once you look out of the window and see the situation in Italy, it is not surprising.”

According to an INFN press release, the institute will now consider various options. It may scale down the project or divert the government’s funding to some other proposal. Ferroni says that he still hopes to build a scaled-back accelerator, with a budget of around €350 million. “One way to make it more affordable would be to reduce the energy level” at which the accelerator operates, says Ferroni. “We definitely won’t be able to build a machine that works at 10 GeV [gigaelectronvolts] as originally planned, but we may build a 4-GeV one”. Such an accelerator could still produce interesting science, Ferroni hopes, in particular by studying lepton flavour violation, a phenomenon that would open new windows on dark matter, supersymmetry and extra dimensions. “But this is now up to the scientific community to evaluate.” The INFN will propose a new plan in a few months.

Timing remains a crucial issue though. Another powerful B factory called Belle II is now being built in Japan, and is expected to start taking data in 2016. To be competitive, the Italian project would have to be completed no later than that. “My hope is that a scaled-down machine would also be quicker to build,” says Ferroni.


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