Guest Editorial: Fermilab: A tradition of scientific excellence benefitting the nation
by U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-14)
In March of this year, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, located in my home district, announced the possible discovery of a new type of boson particle. The evidence from the Tevatron, if confirmed, could hint of a new physics. It is yet another chapter in Fermilab’s proud legacy of exploration at the most fundamental level of energy and matter.
This commitment to excellence and scientific understanding is not only something we’re proud of in Illinois’ 14th District, it’s something we must be proud of as a nation. High energy physics goes beyond parochial interests and local politics; these endeavors are inextricably linked to both our national success, and fundamentally, our national character.
Fermilab has a proud heritage including studies of quark scattering using hadron, muon, and neutrino beams, precise studies of matter-antimatter asymmetry, precision tests of the Standard Model, and of course the discovery of the bottom and top quarks. Together, with the rest of the national laboratories at Cornell, Jefferson Lab, Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and others, these institutions promote cross-disciplinary interactions between various academic fields, as well as between scientists and engineers, and they serve as an irreplaceable channel for the broader goal of developing our base of an advanced STEM workforce.
Data from just the Collider Detector experiment at Fermilab produces two dozen Ph.D. theses per year and a scientific paper every six days; the DZero (study of subatomic particles, including the Higgs Boson) experiment goes even further with three dozen Ph.D. theses from new data and 50 scientific papers per year. In total, Fermilab can produce more than 100 PhDs in a single year based solely on lab data.
Not only are these researchers directly beneficial to society through their own work, they’re also an invaluable component of improving general literacy in science and technology nationwide. Many Fermilab researchers teach at universities—I know several who teach at Northern Illinois University in my district, as well as the University of Chicago and other world-class institutions—and these universities in turn teach the rest of our nation’s teachers. If we hope to reverse the long decline in the quality of K-12 education in math and science that was the subject of the famous “Gathering Storm” report from the National Academies in 2007, this sort of faculty interaction is the seed-corn of scientific literacy.
These are results we ought to be proud of as a nation. The U.S. research system is unique. We’ve found an incredibly powerful combination, wedding education and research by incorporating universities, user facilities and Department of Energy resources. But this system is only as stable our commitment to it, which is why sustained and predictable research funding is crucial. The 2007 reorganization under America competes was a good first step, but Congress must redouble its efforts to provide a clear, predictable, long-term path mapping out the seriousness of our investment.
I’ve spoken frequently on the need to provide business owners and entrepreneurs relief from uncertainty caused by poor government planning; they can handle risk, but they cannot handle uncertainty. It’s no different for the physicists, students and engineers investing themselves in our scientific endeavor. They can handle the challenges of science and engineering, which is why we must not fail in providing them the long-term certainty they need to focus on those challenges.
The ups and downs of funding levels and program authorizations are a clear failure on the part of policymakers to provide this crucial programmatic and funding certainty. When this happens, scientists, students, industries and academic organizations are slowed and distracted. The interruption of investment in these crucial areas is disruptive and demoralizing for the community. It hits junior scientists who may lack the requisite experience to get funding in a hypercompetitive environment, and it hurts experienced scientists who may have to search for funding by shuffling between different universities.
With a pedigree spanning over half a century, it is self-evident that basic research drives our understanding of the universe; from that understanding the utility payoffs are incalculably high. These are new ideas and new innovations that spawn new products, services, companies, industries and affect human capabilities further down the line. Our fundamental understanding of electromagnetism has led directly to our ability to manipulate electrons in both the power grid and in microprocessors, in lasers and in diodes. Elementary particles and their interactions have given us electromagnetic power generation, circuit boards, microprocessors and everything in-between. Research and development in accelerator technology has produced a direct impact as that technology has been refined and distributed. Today, there are more than 17,000 particle accelerators in operation around the world; not just at research institutions, but also in private industry in hospitals and other locations.
Beyond the broader scale and scope of our fundamental discoveries, there’s no shortage of dividends on our investment: PET scans, superconducting wire, cancer treatments, grid computing, the Internet and industrial material treatments are a tiny fraction of the payoffs we’ve seen.
Advances in medical technology and health care treatments; broader economy-wide competitiveness and efficiency gains; and generations enriched with intellectual capital are examples of other benefits. Just within materials science, whether it’s treating plastics and turning them into films, implanting ions into silicon chips, or developing the components of artificial heart valves, we would not have this core understanding without investments made generations ago in accelerator technology and research physics.
As Americans, we strive not only for economic growth, prosperity and job creation, but also for exploration of the frontiers of both knowledge and geography, pushing ourselves against the boundaries of both our capabilities and understanding.
With growing competition from overseas and economic uncertainty here at home, it is more important than ever that we reinforce our national commitment to basic research. Our long-term success in both economic innovation, problem solving and inspiring future generations of Americans depends on it.
The utility offered to our country and to the world by expanding new physics beyond the standard model may be difficult to discern today, but the work being done by physicists and engineers at Fermilab and other centers around the country will undoubtedly produce those benefits. We may not know precisely what impact muon cooling, or high-field magnetic design, or high-intensity beams from proton accelerators may produce in the future, but I have no doubt that these projects at the forefront of the Intensity Frontier will enrich our lives for generations to come.
We need to have a serious budget debate in Washington, but we must recognize that not all federal spending is created equal. In the past 50 years, federal direct payments to individuals have more than tripled as a share of GDP, while our investments in science have flat lined, if not outright decreased. In the coming years, I know Fermilab will continue to distinguish itself in its neutrino studies just as it has in the past.
Basic research and high energy physics are embedded in our national DNA. They’re part of who we are: our jobs, our economy, our community, even our identity as a nation. Now, more than ever, we need to recommit ourselves in both government and at the grassroots to make robust and lasting investment in basic research.