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From the Director: Comments on Charting the Path Forward for Particle Physics

(Photo - Persis Drell)Last week, the High Energy Physics Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) visited SLAC. P5 is charged with identifying and evaluating the scientific opportunities and options that can be pursued at different funding levels for the field of Particle Physics, and with providing advice on a new 10-year plan for U.S. particle physics. In brief remarks to the panel, I offered some personal views based on my unusual vantage point; I am a particle physicist quasi particle astrophysicist who is lab director of a multi program laboratory. What follows is a transcript of my remarks.

We are all still reeling from the chaos of the December budget process, and I believe it has done terrible damage to our optimism for the future of particle physics in the U.S. Ironically, this comes at time when the field or particle physics has never been more exciting scientifically. We find ourselves confronted with unanswered questions that probe the very fundamental nature of the Universe we live in, and we have, within our reach, the experimental tools to make progress in answering those questions. The primary challenge, front and center, for our community is not so much "Will particle physics thrive in the next decade?" It will!! The question is rather: "Will the U.S. continue to play a leadership role in the field?"

To develop a plan for the U.S. that will deliver outstanding science and ensure a continued U.S. leadership role in at least some aspects of particle physics is the job of P5 with input from the community. Here is my advice to you and to the community:

We have to listen to what we are being told. The re-baselining of particle physics in the December budget process was not an accident. High Energy Physics [HEP] in the Office of Science has been faring poorly for a decade. There has been a tendency in the past to assume (unrealistically) that budgets will grow and there has been reluctance to consider the opportunity costs of expensive decisions. However, in real dollars the field of high energy physics is losing ground. The field did not keep the savings we might have expected to recover and reinvest from the turn off of the B-factory. And then this year we were singled out.

I believe particle physics has fared poorly because we have been perceived as not having a realistic plan for our future. Within the Office of Science, we are competing poorly relative to the other programs. We will not see the kind of strategic growth that some other fields have experienced until we can put together a realistic plan that Dennis Kovar and Pat Dehmer within the Office of Science, and Joe Dehmer and Tony Chan at the National Science Foundation can carry forward for us. This plan must be based on and must start from the excitement of the science opportunities enabled by the Federal investments. The programs we put forward must be able to compete well when compared to exciting programs in other fields. I know what some of those other programs are, and we should not be so arrogant as to assume that what we in particle physics are proposing is an easy winner in this competition. There is no entitlement for particle physics!

We, as a field, must be willing to face and answer very difficult questions. We will need to face questions about our program that make us very uncomfortable. But if we can’t answer them, someone else will. For example:

Do we need an operating HEP accelerator in the US to have a healthy program? We have many operating accelerators in the U.S., built and maintained by the same accelerator physicists in many cases. What is so essential about having a HEP accelerator here? Stated another way, if we have a world class physics program that is using our budget in a productive way that the community is unified in support of, is that sufficient to ensure a healthy field in the U.S. even though we are not running on site facilities in the U.S.?

Do we need more than one national laboratory HEP program based at Fermilab? What is the added value or unique contribution of HEP programs at SLAC, Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne, Brookhaven, Cornell and so on. Is the cost justified?

Can we, in the U.S., have a world leading science program at the energy frontier? Are there opportunities at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] for us? A TeV linear collider is the highest priority next facility for the international community. What now should be the role of the U.S. community in realizing this goal?

What is the appropriate balance between the accelerator based program and the non accelerator based program?

What should be our investment strategy for the areas where we are not in a "world leadership" position?

The answers to these questions cannot be based on what we will lose if we don’t get what we want. They have to be based on what we will win. What I mean by this is that I do not think we will fare well within the agencies, with the Office of Management and Budget and with Congress if our arguments just reduce to “We need to do this so our budget doesn’t shrink.” We need to have arguments that articulate “We need to do this because it delivers compelling science, retains U.S. leadership which delivers value and benefits broadly the scientific community (provided the broader scientific community agrees with what we are claiming).” We need to "play to win." My personal opinion is that too many of our arguments sound like entitlements and simply "playing not to lose."

Particle Physics in the U.S. needs a plan. The plan must present opportunities for achieving “transformational or paradigm-altering” scientific advances. This language is cribbed from NASA and it is a standard I think we need to hold ourselves to. P5 has been assigned the task of developing this plan and it is critically important. The plan needs to start from our new baseline of $690M plus inflation and show that with that budget we can deliver outstanding science. We know that in that plan we will yield leadership in some areas of particle physics but not all. These will not be easy choices, and they will need strong, coherent support from the community.

Perhaps we should strive to take a worldwide leadership role in accelerator based neutrinos and in particle astrophysics and cosmology, but forego leadership roles in the LHC machine and detector upgrades, as well as future linear collider R&D. Alternatively, we could forego a forefront program in neutrino physics to maintain our role in the energy frontier and our leadership in particle astrophysics and cosmology. You can work out other permutations for yourself. Since a "truly world class leadership program" is not just a single experiment but a multi-year roadmap for excellence, perhaps we can only have a truly world class leadership program in one of these areas at this budget level. Whatever the case, we must show we can deliver outstanding science with $690M per year. We then can go on to show how leadership in other areas can be gained with incremental resources and why that leadership is important. It would be deadly to have the attitude that we can’t do anything with only $690M a year!

Our plan must be assessed realistically in an international context and it must articulate essential roles for all of its essential components such as Fermilab, SLAC, the other lab programs, and the University community. We cannot distort the plan by preservation of the way that we used to do business or a desire to return to past glories. Resources must be justified on the basis of the science opportunities they create. Institutions will need to change in order to position the field for where it wants to be in the future. We cannot be arguing to preserve the past. We must be arguing for the opportunities of the future.

We must play to win. The future of particle physics in the U.S. is at stake.

Persis Drell, SLAC Today, February 29, 2008