Physicist may lack the funds needed to use Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider

Cash Shortfall Means Time Out for Physicists

By Geoff Brumfiel, Nature
March 21, 2002

Nuclear physicists in the United States have a synchronization problem. Just as much-wanted operating time is becoming available on major facilities, the physics division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is running out of cash to support the researchers who want to use the equipment.

This year, the funds available to the physics division for supporting primary investigator grants have fallen by 11.5% compared with 2001. Given that most of the money is already committed to grants lasting several years, this translates into a cut of one-third in the number of new grants to be awarded in the next couple of months.

Nuclear physicists claim that they will be hit especially hard, because they will miss a rare opportunity to run their best facilities at close to full capacity. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy proudly announced that the United States' two largest facilities for nuclear science — the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state and the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia — will have their operating times substantially increased next year.

The NSF's physics division will receive a 4% budget increase this year. But because of its obligations to run its own facilities in Michigan, Louisiana and Washington state, and its increased grants to larger physics groups, the division is facing a sharp cut in the number of individual researchers it can support. "It's a difficult situation," concedes Joseph Dehmer, the division's director.

"It's going to have a very, very unfortunate effect," says Lawrence Cardman, associate director of physics at the Jefferson lab. Cardman says that over a quarter of the lab's staff are funded by the NSF, and many will lose their grants this year. He fears that young scientists will be forced to abandon nuclear physics as a result.

"This is a disastrous situation," says Baha Balantekin of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Most graduate students are supported by primary investigator grants, he says, and nuclear physics is already running short of them. "This is cutting off blood flow to the field," he says.

But Dehmer claims that the situation may improve next year. President George Bush's budget proposal allows for a 5% increase in NSF funding in 2003 — including a 1.3% reduction at the physics division — but the House of Representatives budget committee last week suggested a more generous 9% increase for the agency.