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Director's Column: The Role of Peer Review in Guiding Choices for our Future

Most of you have read about or participated in the process of peer review. The principle of peer review is that a group of peers (that is, individuals knowledgeable in the particular area or subject of the review) provide an external and independent evaluation that is then used in decision making. Peer review may take many forms—from individual "mail reviews" to complex organized site visits and "panel reviews." Peer review is applied in many ways and tailored to the particular situation at hand—for example, reviewing original science submitted for publication in manuscripts, evaluation of scientific or technical proposals, or providing detailed reviews of technical and construction aspects of complex projects, and is often performed under confidentiality measures.

At SLAC, peer review is an integral and fundamental aspect of almost everything we do. At the highest level, the SLAC Policy Committee formally reviews the laboratory and advises Stanford President Hennessy on the operation and performance, and SLAC's strategic plans for the future. The Environment Safety and Health (ES&H) Advisory Committee provides, among other mechanisms, review and oversight of our ES&H program. One of our most valuable commodities, beam time and accelerator access, is allocated based on peer review committees (for example the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory [SSRL] Proposal Review Panel and the Particle and Particle Astrophysics [PPA] Experimental Program Advisory Committee). Projects like Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) depend heavily on peer review for evaluation and advice across a range of areas, from civil construction to technical systems. There are easily a dozen or more external peer review committees that cover SLAC's programs and operations.

Which brings me to write in a bit more detail about another mechanism of peer review used by our major funding agency—the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Just last week, SLAC was visited by a peer review committee that was constituted by the DOE. Under the able oversight and guidance of Dan Lehman (and hence the review is nicknamed a "Lehman Review"), a team of outside scientists visited SLAC and reviewed the conceptual design for the suite of instruments being planned for the LCLS: the LCLS Ultrafast Science Instruments (LUSI) project. LUSI staff, working closely with scientific teams, gave in-depth presentations of the concept, cost and schedule for the project to the Lehman Committee over the course of two days. In the closeout, which was held last Wednesday in the late afternoon, the Committee found that the cost and technical approach was generally solid and significant progress had been made toward taking the next step in the DOE's process for managing large capital equipment projects (the so called "Critical Decisions" which run from CD0 [project is needed for the DOE mission] through CD4 [project completion]). On the other hand, the Committee felt that the proposed schedule for deploying the instruments was not optimal and would not provide the earliest possible return on science from LCLS. Based on this advice, and working in very close consultation with DOE, a revised conceptual schedule has already been worked out and will be presented in detail to the DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences in a few weeks. This example illustrates the value of such a "Lehman Review" and we look forward to having this process provide advice as the project moves from concept to detailed design through to completion.

Of course it takes a lot of time and effort to manage any effective review process. In the LUSI example, SLAC's scientific and technical staff worked exceptionally hard with the external scientific teams to prepare the material. Our administrative staff had to manage the preparation of the material (all of which was made available from a web-site and in printed form) and help with the logistics of the meeting, travel plans and a host of other needs. The peer reviewers and DOE officials had to travel to SLAC and commit time to the review and the written report. All of these people deserve our sincere thanks. The advice we received last week will help SLAC and the LUSI team follow a path which will lead to a faster return on the investment of Federal funds and delivery on the promise of the LCLS, soon to become the world's first x-ray free electron laser.

—Keith Hodgson, January 29, 2007