Thursday, May 29, 2008

Private Donor Gives Fermilab $5 Million

This is all over the Web already, but what the hey...

An anonymous donor gave $5 million to U. of Chicago to help with the financial debacle at Fermilab. This is reminiscent of the donation to RHIC a while ago to save it from being shut down temporarily due to similar budget constraints, although it wasn't from an anonymous donor.

The savings from the furlough allowed lab officials to keep the lab's particle smasher, the Tevatron Collider, running all out in its quest to spot the famed Higgs boson, the missing link in physicists' theory of the known fundamental bits of matter. Fermilab researchers hope to discover the Higgs before it's snagged by the more powerful Large Hadron Collider, which should turn on this summer at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. The donation, which will be funneled through the University of Chicago, will enable the lab to stop the furlough after two of four planned rounds of leave. The lab was able to scrape up another $1 million, in part because about 50 employees have already jumped ship, Oddone says.

This is the second time in recent years that philanthropists have bailed out a beleaguered DOE lab. In 2006, Congress gave Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, too little money to run its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which is used to study a type of nuclear physics. James Simons, a theoretical physicist and billionaire hedge-fund guru then donated $13 million to Brookhaven to run the machine.

It paints a very sad picture of science funding in the US. $5 million is PUNY in the scale of funding sizes. Many corporations burn that much in just 1-day. And we haven't gotten into what minuscule percentage that is out of the military spending. Yet, it saved the lab from the debilitating furloughs that, from all anecdotal accounts, have crippled the Fermilab.

But still, this is only a temporary band-aid on a bigger disease.

Although the donation ends the furlough, it does not solve Fermilab's problems. "The grain of salt is that it really does nothing to change the uncertainty with regard to the future," says Brendan Casey, a Fermilab particle physicist. "So there's some relief, but the underlying tension is still there." A DOE advisory panel will meet tomorrow and Friday to discuss the future of the lab and particle physics in the United States.

Both the US public and the politicians need to decide if they wish to continue supporting particle physics in the US. Scientists would rather hear that they do not, rather than giving mixed, wishy-washy signal. At the very least, the former will allow many to simply pull up roots and move on, knowing that a political decision was made to abandon an important field of physics. Years from now, at least, we know who to blame for such a debacle and let history judge the foolish mistake these people made.


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