Sen. Rand Paul has proposed eliminating the Department of Energy. Other Republicans are pressing for significant cuts to the agency’s budget. This push has included little discussion — or evident comprehension — of what it would do to American capabilities in physics, or why that matters.
Paul would transfer DOE’s nuclear weapons activities to the Pentagon (which is probably a bad idea as it would eliminate the deliberate redundancy of having two agencies safeguarding the stockpile). Moreover, he dismisses DOE in a Wall Street Journal op-ed thus: “Many of its other activities amount to nothing more than corporate handouts,” such as subsidies for companies developing cleaner energy.
But much of what DOE does has nothing to do with either weapons work or corporate handouts. The agency spends billions on basic research aimed at understanding the physical world. Such research yields vast benefits in generating new technologies and powering the economy. But its large-scale, long-term nature places it beyond the scope of any company; if the government doesn’t do it, no one will.
Consider DOE’s program in High Energy Physics (a term roughly synonymous with “particle physics,” as many particles occur only in high-energy conditions such as in a particle accelerator). It aims at elucidating the basic structure of matter, the early moments of the universe, the nature of cosmic rays that hit Earth from distant areas of space, and related topics.
Expensive? Yes. The High Energy Physics program is currently running at about $800 million annually. Arcane? Sure. But such research has brought a raft of practical applications too. Developing superconducting magnets for particle accelerators helped give rise to medical technologies such as MRI machines, for example. And, importantly, the opportunity to work on cutting-edge physics has been a draw for developing and retaining scientific and technological talent in the U.S.
That program, which would have no future under Sen. Paul’s proposal, is already under budget pressure. For years, its flagship machine has been the Tevatron, a nearly 4-mile-long circular accelerator at DOE’s Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois. Last month, Fermilab announced that a planned three-year extension of the Tevatron’s operations has been cancelled for budget reasons. As of September, the machine will stop operating.
There are other ambitious activities planned at Fermilab, including Project X, a linear accelerator slated to go online in 2019. But such research will require funding and a degree of budgetary stability. The latter has been lacking in U.S. particle physics since the 1993 cancelation of the Superconducting Super Collider, a huge project that ended up as nothing but a hole in the ground in Texas.
If the U.S. stalls in high energy physics, other nations will surely pull ahead, reaping the field’s technological and workforce benefits. Last month, as the Tevatron extension was going by the wayside, Europe’s CERN physics lab announced plans to ramp up activities at its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful accelerator.
If budget-cutters such as Rand Paul want to slash American physics, they should at least show some understanding of what would be lost.