Advancing high-energy physics in the United States

Here is an interesting and important scientific question: where is high-energy physics going? What future discoveries are possible in the field? And what strategies are most likely to bring these breakthroughs about? HEP is the field of physics that studies sub-atomic particles — muons, quarks, neutrinos, bosons, as well as now-familiar larger particles like neutrons, protons, and electrons — and their interactions. Research in this field involves producing collisions of sub-atomic particles at high energies (speeds) to create conditions permitting observation of new particles and properties. (The image above is a screenshot of the breakthrough results achieved at Europe’s CERN particle accelerator documenting observation of the Higgs boson.) And the most striking feature of HEP is the fact that it requires multi-billion-dollar tools (particle accelerators) and scientific teams (armies of advanced experimental physicists) to have any hope of making progress in the state of the field. Progress in high-energy physics does not happen in a garage or a university laboratory; it requires massive public investments in research facilities and scientific teams, organized around specific research objectives. In the United States these are largely located in the national laboratories (link) and through collaboration with international research facilities (CERN).

The question I want to address here is this: Who should be interested in a serious way in the topic of where research in high-energy physics is going? It should be emphasized that in this context I mean “interest” in a specific way: “materially, politically, or professionally concerned about the choices that are made”. Who are the actors who contribute to setting the agenda for future scientific work in high-energy physics? To what extent do the scientists themselves determine the future of their scientific field? Is this primarily an academic and scientific question, a question of public policy, a question of national prestige, or possibly a question of economic growth and development?

One answer to “who should be interested” is straightforward and obvious: the small network of world-class experimental and theoretical physicists in the country whose scientific careers are devoted to progress and discovery in the field of high-energy physics. Every physicist who teaches physics in a university in a sense has an interest in the future of the field, and a small number of highly trained physicists have strong scientific intuitions about where future advances are most likely to be found. Moreover, there is only a relatively small number of expert physicists whose own abilities and the capacities of their laboratories have a realistic opportunity to contribute to progress in the field. So the expert scientific community, including experimental and theoretical physicists, computational experts, and instrumentation specialists, have highly informed ideas about where meaningful progress in physics is possible.

An institution with definite interest in the question is the formal organization that represents the collective scientific practice of American physics — the American Physical Society (APS) (link). The APS is a prestigious organization which contributes specialized advice to government and the public on a range of questions, from the feasibility of anti-missile defense to the level of risk associated with global climate change (link).

An important practice involved directly in surveying the horizon for future physics advances is the Snowmass conference (link) (or more formally, the Particle Physics Community Planning Exercise). Snowmass is organized and managed by APS, and it has formal independence from the Department of Energy. Here is a thumbnail description of Snowmass:

The Particle Physics Community Planning Exercise (a.k.a. “Snowmass”) is organized by the Division of Particles and Fields (DPF) of the American Physical Society. Snowmass is a scientific study. It provides an opportunity for the entire particle physics community to come together to identify and document a scientific vision for the future of particle physics in the U.S. and its international partners. Snowmass will define the most important questions for the field of particle physics and identify promising opportunities to address them. (Learn more about the history and spirit of Snowmass here “How to Snowmass” written by Chris Quigg). The P5, Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, will take the scientific input from Snowmass and develop a strategic plan for U.S. particle physics that can be executed over a 10 year timescale, in the context of a 20-year global vision for the field. (link)

As noted, Snowmass is an arm of APS, with close informal ties to the Department of Energy and its advisory committee HEPAC. For this reason we would like to infer that it is a reasonably independent process, developing its assessments and recommendations based on the best scientific expertise and judgment available. But we can also ask whether it succeeds in the task of formulating a clear set of visions and priorities for the future of high-energy physics research, or instead presents a grab-bag of the particular views of its participating scientists. If the latter, does the Snowmass process succeed in influencing or guiding the decision-making that others will follow in setting priorities and budgets for future investments in physics research? So there is an important question for policy-institution analysis even at this early stage of our consideration: how “rational” is the Snowmass process, and how effective is it at distilling a credible scientific consensus about the future direction of high energy physics research? This is a question for policy studies in organizational sociology, similar to many studies in the field of science, technology, and society (STS).

Snowmass in turn plays into a more formal part of DoE’s decision-making process, the P5 process (Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel), which prepares a decennial report and strategic vision for the future of high-energy physics for the coming decade. This report is then conveyed to the DoE advisory committee and to DoE’s director. (Here is a summary of the 2007-08 P5 report (link), and here is a link to the 2014 P5 report (link). In 2020 HEPAC conducted a review of the recommendations of the 2014 report and progress made towards those priorities (link).) Here too we can ask the organizational question: how effective is the P5 process at defining the best possible scientific consensus on priorities for the field of high energy physics research?

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (link) is another organization that has an interest and capability in developing specific assessments and recommendations about the future of high-energy physics, and the research investments most likely to lead to important advances and discoveries. Here is a “consensus report” prepared by a group of leading physicists and commissioned by the NASEM Committee on Elementary Particle Physics in the 21st Century in 2006 (link).

Scientists are actors in the process of priority setting for the future of physics research, then. But it is clear that scientists do not ultimately make these decisions. Given that programs of research in high energy physics require multi-billion dollar investments, the Federal government is a major decision-maker in priority-setting for the future of physics. There are several Federal agencies that have a primary interest in setting the direction of future research in high-energy physics. The Department of Energy is the largest source of funding — and therefore priorities — for future investments in research in high-energy physics, including the neutrino detector DUNE project centered in Chicago at Fermilab and the now-defunct plan for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas in the 1980s, terminated in 1993. The Office of High Energy Physics (link) is ultimately responsible for decisions about major capital investments in this field, with budget oversight from Congressional committees. The Office of National Laboratories has oversight over the national laboratories (Fermilab, Argonne, Ames, Brookhaven, and several others). The DoE process is inherently agency-driven, given that it is concerned with a small number of highly impactful investment decisions. One such decision was the plan to implement the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) at Fermilab in metro Chicago in around 2010 for several billion dollars. So here again we have an organizational problem for research: how are decisions made within the Office of High Energy Physics? Are the director and staff simply a transparent transmission belt from the physics community to DoE priorities? Or do agency officials have agendas of their own?

The Office of High Energy Physics is supported by an advisory committee of senior scientists, the High Energy Physics Advisory Committee (HEPAP). This committee exists to provide expert scientific advice to OHEP about priorities, goals, and scientific strategies. It is unclear whether HEPAP is enabled to fulfill this role given its current functioning and administration. Do members of HEPAP have the opportunity for free and open discussion of priorities and projects, or is the agenda of the committee effectively driven by OHEP director and staff?

Congress is an important actor in the formulation of science policy in general, and policy in the field of high-energy physics in particular, through its control of the Federal budget. Some elected officials also have an interest in the question in the future of physics, for a different reason. They believe that there are national interests at stake in the future developments of physics; and they believe that world-class scientific discovery and progress are important components of global prestige. Perhaps the US will be thought to be less of a scientific superpower than Japan or Europe in twenty years because the major advances in particle physics have taken place at CERN and advanced research installations in Japan. To maintain the edge, the elected official may have an interest in supporting budget decisions that boost the strength and effectiveness of US science — including high-energy physics. Small investments guarantee minimal progress, whereas large investments make the possibility of significant breakthroughs much greater than would otherwise be the case.

There are still two constituencies to be considered: citizens and businesses. Do ordinary citizens have an interest in the future of high-energy physics? Probably not. No one has made the case for HEP that has been made for the planetary space program — that research dollars spent on planetary space vehicles and exploration will lead to currently unpredictable but valuable technology breakthroughs that will “change daily life as we know it”. No “teflon story” is likely to emerge from the DUNE project. HEP, neutrinos, hadron particles, and their like, as well as the accelerators, detectors, and computational equipment needed to evaluate their behavior, have little likelihood of leading to practical spin-off technologies. As a first approximation, then, ordinary citizens have little interest — in either the economist’s sense or the psychologist’s sense — in what strategies are likely to be most fruitful for the progress of high-energy physics.

The business community is different from the citizen and consumer segment for a familiar reason. Like citizens and consumers, business leaders have no inherent interest in the progress or future of high-energy physics. But as manufacturers of high-performance cryogenic electromagnet systems or instrumentation systems, they have a very distinct interest in supporting (and lobbying for) the establishment of major new technology-intensive infrastructure projects. This is similar to the defense industry; it is not that aircraft manufacturers want military conflict, but they recognize that building military aircraft is a profitable business strategy. So more military spending on high-tech weapons is better than less, from the point of view of defense contractors. The large cryogenic electromagnet producer has a very specific business interest in seeing an investment in a largescale neutrino experiment, because it will lead to expenditures in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars on electromagnets once construction begins.

Now that we’ve surveyed the players, what should we expect when it comes to science policy and strategy? Should we expect a highly rational process in which “scientific aims and goals” are debated and finalized by the scientific experts solicited by the American Physical Society and Snowmass; a report is received from the P5 process by the quasi-public body HEPAP that advises DoE on its strategies, and evaluated in a clear and rational basis; recommendations are conveyed to DoE officials, who introduce a note of budget realism but strive to craft a set of strategic goals for the coming decade that largely incorporate the wisdom of the APS/Snowmass report; DoE executives are able to make a compelling case for the public good to key legislators; and budget commitments are made to accomplish the top 5 out of 8 recommendations of the Snowmass report? Do we get a reasonably coherent and scientifically defensible set of strategies and investments out of this process?

The answer is likely to be clear to any social scientist. The clean lines of “recommendation, collection of expert scientific opinion, rational assessment, disinterested selection of priorities” will quickly be blurred by facts having to do with very well known organizational and political dysfunctions: conflicts of interest and agenda within agencies; industry and agency capture of the big-science agenda; conflicting interests among stakeholders; confusion within policy debates between longterm and medium-term objectives; imperfect communication within and across organizational lines; and a powerful interest expressed by local stakeholders to gain part of the benefits of the project as private incomes. It is illogical that parochial business interests in Chicago or Japan would influence the decision whether to fund the International Linear Collider (link); but this appears in fact to be the case. In other words, the clean and rational decision-making process we would like to see is broken apart by conflicts of interest and priority from various powerful actors. And the result may bear only a faint resemblance to the best judgments about “good science” that were offered by the scientific advisors in early stages of the process. March and Simon’s “garbage can model” of organizational decision-making seems relevant here (link); or, as Charles Perrow describes the process in Complex Organizations (2014):

Goals may thus emerge in a rather fortuitous fashion, as when the organization seems to back into a new line of activity or into an external alliance in a fit of absentmindedness. (135)

No coherent, stable goal guided the total process, but after the fact a coherent stable goal was presumed to have been present. It would be unsettling to see it otherwise. (135)

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