A New Lease for an Evolving Partnership
When asked how long a lifetime the proposed linear accelerator at Stanford would have, SLAC founding Director Pief Panofsky reportedly replied, "About 10 years or so, unless somebody has a bright idea, which someone here usually does."
Nearly 50 years and countless bright ideas later, SLAC and its linear accelerator are still going strong. Despite Panofsky's short-term quip, Stanford and what was then the Atomic Energy Commission set up a 50-year agreement, in which the university would provide its land to the government for free and operate the laboratory on behalf of the AEC. Recently, Stanford and the AEC's successor, the Department of Energy, agreed to extend this relationship for another 33 years.
The idea for a two-mile linear accelerator sprang from a group of Stanford physicists, including Panofsky, around 1956. They envisioned a machine that would let them hunt for the most fundamental building blocks of the universe, one that required more than 50 times the energy of the 220-foot electron accelerator already housed in a university laboratory. Because of the project's massive price tag—which at $114 million was nearly twice that of Stanford's endowment at the time—Panofsky knew it would require government funding.
In 1957, the group sent a 100-page proposal to three government agencies, hopeful that one of them might be able to support the project. Of the National Science Foundation, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the AEC was deemed the most appropriate to take it on.
Negotiations between Stanford and the AEC went on for several years, on topics such as the site of the accelerator, who would oversee the construction, and how the lab would operate once experiments were under way. Stanford offered to let the AEC use its land free of charge, but wanted to maintain its own research program. The facility would also be open to qualified researchers outside the university, and results from all of the experiments would freely be published. Finally, in 1962, five years after the proposal, the two institutions signed a contract.
These original agreements were forged primarily between the AEC and the Stanford Board of Trustees. The board then set up a network of groups and individuals to manage the research and administrative programs at the laboratory. They assigned operating responsibilities to the president of Stanford, who in turn delegated them to the director of SLAC. A team of associate directors would oversee the day-to-day functions of the various divisions within the lab.
There were also several independent committees that communicated among the three partners. A program advisory committee provided advice on scientific programs to the SLAC director. Another committee advised the Stanford president on the scientific policies at SLAC, which were then forwarded to the AEC. In addition, a university coordinating committee advised the president regarding affairs between SLAC and the university, and an AEC site office was established at SLAC to serve as a liaison between the lab, the university and the federal government.
Many of these relationships are still in place today, but have evolved to reflect SLAC's place in the national laboratory system. SLAC now operates under the Office of Science within the Department of Energy, as a multi-program laboratory aligned with the larger DOE mission. There is still a site office at SLAC, now run by the DOE, where current manager Paul Golan works closely with the lab and university.
"I'm like the umpire," Golan said. "I make sure the game is played fairly and that the rules are followed." But he can sometimes act like a first-base coach too, providing direction and feedback on the operations, safety and infrastructure at the lab.
Stanford has established a Board of Overseers to review SLAC operations and send an annual assurance letter to the DOE, which describes how well the lab is performing and includes assessments of risks and mitigations.
The university's official representative to the government is Bill Madia, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the contract. He said he ensures that both Stanford and the DOE meet the conditions of the contract, follow safety protocols and are generally "heading in the right direction." He works regularly with SLAC Director Persis Drell and Stanford President John Hennessey, discussing the long-term direction and goals of the lab.
"Because of the broad scientific footprint of the Linac Coherent Light Source, there is an expanded interest on campus to work with SLAC," Madia said. The latest adaptation of SLAC's two-mile linear accelerator, the LCLS has a working lifetime of about 30 years, not including the proposed LCLS-II facilities. Stanford and the DOE agreed on the new, 33-year lease term to allow SLAC, Stanford and the DOE enough time to complete the mission.
The new lease had to be updated to reflect five decades of change in the legal and political landscapes, especially regarding state and federal environmental laws. The basic premise of the original lease was that the government could use the land for the lifetime of the lab, but it must return it in the same condition it was in when Stanford first gave it to the government.
"Today, environmental laws and regulations are much more specific," Madia said. Although the land cannot be restored to its undeveloped state, it must be returned without financial impairments or contamination in the soil, groundwater or air that would restrict Stanford's ability to use the land for other purposes in the future.
The new lease also allows future extension of the relationship for as long as Stanford and the DOE see the arrangement as mutually beneficial—which leaves plenty of time to come up with the next bright idea