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University Grant Funding November 3, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, politics, university.

The cost of doing business in particle physics is going up, but the funding is going down. The big question is — how do you fix this problem? This was a topic of sleepy discussion at a town meeting here in Hawaii last night.

The funding for high energy physics can be divided into two classes: cash that goes to the large labs (like Fermilab) and cash that goes to the university groups (like mine). As particle physics projects have increased in size the balance has shifted: money that used to go to the university groups has gone to the labs.

For the most part this isn’t a big deal. The labs often sub-contract with university groups to get things done. For example, the cash for the construction of the ATLAS forward muon chambers at University of Washington did not come directly from one of the funding agencies. At a fundamental level, as the experiments get bigger no single university can handle the experiment (Fermilab’s budget for operating is in excess of 300 million a year).

But, back to the basic problem. As we enter the LHC era the cost of doing business is going up. It costs more to send students over to CERN. A round trip ticket is x2 or x3 more than to Chicago. Housing and hotels over there are more expensive. It is more inconvenient in the sense that you can’t go for short tips because of the time shift (at least I can’t, but maybe I need to learn!).

The discussion was pretty wide ranging. I stayed out of it mostly as I’d had a few drinks before I arrived — to celebrate having given my last talk, of course.

At the most basic level — and this is what got to me about the discussion — the problem is the size of the program. We are expected to do more — participate in the LHC, do more educational out reach, etc. — with less cash. That is the biggest problem that needs to be fixed. Perhaps that was taken for granted last night and that is why it wasn’t mentioned. But it needs to be addressed forcefully in this report.

Several other things came to mind as the meeting wore on and the drinks wore off:

  • I like to see a better understanding of what it will require to do LHC physics from the funding agencies. I think many of them think we will be able to crank out results without actually going to CERN. I seriously double the physics model will be much different at the LHC as compared to the Tevatron.
  • The community needs better support for the transition between the Tevatron and the LHC physics programs. Our students can’t switch to the LHC until they are able to get a thesis, with data, in a reasonable time. It seems like we have a year or two to go before that becomes a sure thing. This is bad on many levels. Many students will build up in the system, take too many years to graduate, and then flood the market at once. It isn’t good for anyone. When the funding agencies ask us to switch programs they need to keep in mind that we are dealing with people, not pawns that can be moved around at will. Supporting a physics program at the Tevatron and the LHC is harder and more expensive than doing just one. As we are in the middle of this transition it is probably too late to do anything about this. We have to suffer through it because, well, we have to.
  • A point was made that funding agencies need to better interface with the department and their expectations for research groups of high energy physicists. I suspect things could be improved there. But the best people to do out reach to a physics department are the members of the physics department. Perhaps there are better ways to support that. For example, I often stuff a meeting like DPF that never makes it out of the DPF conference. Or, it is in a subfield that I’m not all that familiar with and thus I don’t recognize its importance. Having that information would definitely help!
  • And a minor point. Lessen the restrictions on hiring long-term research professors. There are some folks that, for whatever reason, aren’t suited to be professors but keep the field a float. These could be detector people, people with narrow (but very deep) physics interests — but whatever, their only choice for employment right now is at a lab. There aren’t many of those positions. Further, in the day and age of these long lasting programs we need continuity of knowledge. The current funding guidelines and pressures try to funnel funding to young people for short periods of time. The only long term funding for people has to come from other sources. I totally understand the reason for this: you want to make sure you give the young people a chance to flourish in the field and making sure positions are open for them is the right way to go. But it seems the balance has swung too far.

I know some of the people on the committee. I should send them an email.

Ok. Last day of the conference. And it is bright and sunny. I might not come back from lunch on time…

P.S. Sorry there haven’t been pictures in a while. The internet connection here is awful; I’m using it all up making sure I have backup copies of my talks increase my laptop gets stolen or broken…



1. Chip - November 27, 2006

Yup…you should!

In addition to your specific topics – some of which we have explicit concern about – I have another one.

I’m concerned, not about what _we_ think of us but what the rest of our physics departments think about us. If HEP is totally off-shore, are we going to continue to receive the collegial, departmental support at levels that most of us have historically enjoyed? Think in the currency of retirement replacement.

What do you think?

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