Physics leaders discuss life after Higgs with Congress



“We need to build,” said UC Santa Cruz Professor Steve Ritz, touting a central recommendation of the U.S. Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel’s (P5) recently released strategic plan, “Building for Discovery.”

Ritz made the important point during a Senate briefing last week.

But building things costs money, and federal support for particle physics – also referred to as high-energy physics – has declined in real terms by more than 50 percent during the past 25 years.

While best-known for breakthrough discoveries, such as the Higgs boson, within its own research realm, particle physics contributes broadly across other disciplines and in developing advanced technologies. Biologists, chemists and material scientists rely heavily on synchrotron light sources to conduct their research. MRI machines have become standard tools for medical diagnosis and proton accelerators are used to treat cancer.

With the future of U.S. particle physics uncertain and the P5 report in hand, physics leaders spent the last few weeks on Capitol Hill educating congressional members and staff on the essential role particle physics plays in our science enterprise and sharing the community’s vision for its future.

Their efforts were highlighted by the House Subcommittee on Energy’s June 10 hearing titled, “A Review of the P5: The U.S. Vision for Particle Physics After Discovery of the Higgs Boson.” The hearing’s witness panel was comprised of renowned physicists Steve Ritz (P5 chair and professor at UC Santa Cruz); Persis Drell (director emerita, SLAC National Laboratory); Nigel Lockyer (director, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory); and Natalie Roe (director, Physics Division, Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory).

The panel provided testimony and answered committee members’ questions, discussing the benefits of a healthy particle physics program to our country, the globalization of the field, the deliberative and inclusive process used in writing “Building for Discovery,” and a strategy to help America regain its primacy in particle physics in the era of constrained budgets.

Their testimonies reiterated a salient message from the P5 report: The U.S. must raise its game in construction of new facilities to remain a global leader in particle physics. “Without the capability to host a large project,” the report and Ritz’s testimony note, “the U.S. would lose its position as a global leader in this field, and the international relationships that have been so productive would be fundamentally altered.”

Given constrained budget requirements, the P5 panel made difficult choices and eliminated excellent research projects to increase resources for new facility construction and ready the nation for long-term success. But again, building new facilities requires resources, and the report’s lowest budget scenario (Scenario A) is precarious, approaching the point where hosting a world-class facility in the U.S. while maintaining the other components of a successful research program would not be possible. 

During the hearing, Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA15) deemed Scenario A “unacceptable” in his opening remarks. American Physical Society President Malcolm Beasley provided an additional warning about Scenario A in the form of a letter, which was submitted for the record by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL14).

And Chairman Cynthia Lummis’ (R-WY) opening statement indicated support for scientific research is still a bipartisan issue: “…we cannot overlook the fact that the federal government plays a critical role when it comes to the nation’s long-term competitiveness in the physical sciences… In particle physics, the U.S. is already slipping and stands to lose its position of global significance if we do not act boldly.”

“Building for Discovery” provides a vision for the future of U.S. particle physics and a roadmap for making it a reality. But there is also a saying at the Pentagon that “a vision without resources is a hallucination.” Let’s hope Congress heeds Chairman Lummis’ advice and acts boldly. Otherwise, U.S. particle physics may become an oasis. 

NSF and NASA Funding

The House of Representative may vote on H.R. 4660, the Fiscal Year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science bill that funds the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at any moment. Take action and write your Representative to let them know you support robust funding for science.

FIRST Act Markup – As Good As It Gets?

After months of speculation and a subcommittee markup in March, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology marked up the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act (FIRST Act) on May 21. As expected, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle defended the provisions of the bill while Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and her colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle spoke against the bill.

Chairman Smith opened the hearing lauding the FIRST Act as a step toward responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars while simultaneously noting the need for increased congressional oversight of the National Science Foundation (NSF). During both his opening and subsequent remarks, Chairman Smith stated that the bill would be in the best interest of the scientific community by pointing out that the spending level in the bill is slightly higher than in President Obama’s budget request. He failed to note that the increase would not keep pace with inflation. Smith also highlighted the need to redirect funding at NSF to emphasize greater focus on physical sciences and engineering. He added those grants should be justified before Congress as being in the national interest.

In her opening statement, Johnson spoke against the bill, emphasizing that there was no need to regulate the scientific process by shackling the already exemplary NSF. Quoting the proverb behind her on the Committee room wall, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” Johnson reminisced about the first America COMPETES bill from 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010, both of which brought together members from both major political parties with a vision of America’s future. Johnson then lamented that the FIRST Act, rather than show vision, was an inflammatory piece of legislation that sowed distrust of scientists and injected politics into the scientific process. On the heels of her statement, Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and others on the minority side also spoke against the majority bill, echoing Johnson’s remarks and casting doubt on the need to treat scientists with suspicion.

During the markup, Edwards also identified a problematic technicality with the current bill, which authorizes funding for NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) for FY 2014. She pointed out that FY14 is nearly half over and that the agencies are currently spending funding appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2014 Omnibus bill passed by Congress. How, then, she asked, could this bill authorize funding that has been appropriated and begun to be spent? Edwards pressed Smith, who said that the appropriate adjustments would be made on the House floor. However, Edwards pointed out that it was unclear that such adjustments could actually be made. She then asked why the committee was holding a markup for a bill that would need further adjustments after the hearing. It is also noteworthy that the FIRST Act authorizes funding for the NSF below what the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee put in its FY15 bill.

Edwards also discussed a Washington Post op-ed that appeared on the day of the markup authored by Cornell University President David Skorton. In that piece, Skorton opined that unfounded attacks on social and behavioral sciences at the NSF were harmful, and that research coming out of those fields were extraordinarily valuable: “Addressing such problems as poverty and disease depends as much on a mastery of the broader issues that drive political and economic issues as it does on the science and technology involved.”

During the hearing, 28 amendments to the bill were introduced, almost all of them by minority members seeking to remove portions of the bill they and the scientific community believe to be most damaging. Among amendments proposed was one to remove directorate-level funding, striking section 106 requiring NSF to determine that a grant or cooperative agreement is in the national interest. Another amendment would have struck section 115 of the bill requiring that findings and conclusions of a principal investigator receiving a research grant from the NSF not contain any falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism and prohibit NSF from providing grants to a principal investigator who violated this requirement. Yet another amendment would have struck section 116, which states that the portion of a peer-reviewed grant application to NSF supporting the credentials of the principal investigator may not include more than five citations to articles published by the principal investigator.

All of the amendments failed during voice votes, but their sponsors requested recorded votes for the record: those have been scheduled for May 28th at 5:00pm. Notably, the National Science Board (NSB), adviser to the National Science Foundation, took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement against the FIRST bill as currently drafted. Johnson introduced statements that opposed the legislation, including the NSB’s, into the record.

In the end, it was clear that the Majority had every intention of passing the bill with the offensive provisions intact. What is unclear, however, is whether Smith will be able to secure House floor time for consideration of the bill and whether the Senate will take up its companion bill before the end of the session.

America Can’t Afford to Ignore Science


In my latest column in  Roll Call, I point out the following: “More affordable and healthful food, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, more efficient and less expensive appliances, better and more affordable medical diagnostic instruments are all within reach if we continue to devote financial and intellectual capital to scientific research and education.”

Read the entire piece.

Science agency directors make strong case for research and education during Senate Innovation hearing

Spring typically marks appropriations season on Capitol Hill. With the Ryan-Murray budget agreement only increasing the discretionary budget by about $19 billion above sequester-level spending, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are again left with the difficult task of deciding how to best spend limited funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on “Driving Innovation through Federal Investments” held April 27 on Capitol Hill provided the nation’s research and development (R&D) community a platform to make their case for increased support of our nation’s basic science funding agencies…and they delivered.

An all-star lineup of science agency directors provided testimony and answered committee members’ questions, communicating the enormous benefits federal investments in scientific research have had on society. But the directors also warned that inconsistent funding patterns threaten our ability to make the next set of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries.

The panel was comprised of Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren; Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; National Science Foundation Director France Córdova; National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins; and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Arati Prabhakar.

The panelists’ comments were echoed by more than 130 organizations, including the American Physical Society (APS), which submitted written testimony for the hearing authored by APS President Malcolm Beasley on behalf of the society’s 50,000 members.

The overwhelming support for increased federal expenditures for research and development from the business, higher education and scientific communities had members on both sides of the political aisle nodding their heads. Committee Chairwoman Mikulski’s (D-MD) commented on America’s “innovation deficit,” a recently coined term gaining traction on the Hill, and her views aligned with those expressed by the panel and outside testimonies.

“While we have been focused on cutting spending and squeezing investments, America’s innovation deficit has grown. Budget cuts can’t come at the expense of growth-inducing investments that drive scientific, medical and defense innovation,” she said in her opening statement.

That sentiment was bookended when her counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), noted in his closing statement that while budgets are constrained, we are not spending enough on basic research.

Shelby stated, “We are leaving a lot of ideas and perhaps breakthroughs on the table. And we can’t afford that as a nation.”

The APS Office of Public Affairs will continue to advocate for robust and sustained federal funding for scientific research and to provide APS members opportunities to have their voices heard. APS is an active member of three coalitions – the Innovation Task Force, the Energy Sciences Coalition, and the Coalition for National Science Funding – engaging Congress and the Administration on the issue. Additionally, more than 1,400 APS members have participated in our Contact Congress campaign at this year’s March and April Meetings.

Don’t let the bipartisanship of science go the way of the dinosaur

Federal funding of scientific research was once a bipartisan enterprise in Washington. However, much to the chagrin of the science community, times are changing. Under increasing spending constraints and the politicizing of certain areas of science, including climate change and social and behavioral sciences, that bipartisan support is not nearly as strong as it once was.

For example, the lack of bipartisanship shown in recent Dear Colleague letters reinforces my point. The letters are used to encourage support of or opposition to a specific issue or bill. Dear Colleague letters are typically sent between congressional members. Regarding science funding, congressional members recently signed multiple Dear Colleague letters and sent them to representatives and senators who serve on the appropriations committee.

In the House, two letters were sent to the committee, one regarding general support for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE SC) and another asking that $7.5B be appropriated to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in FY15. In the Senate, there was a companion NSF letter also requesting $7.5B for NSF in FY15.

So, why the comment that the bipartisan support once enjoyed by science has decreased?

Well, the Senate NSF Dear Colleague only managed to gather 21 signatures, all of them Democrat. In the House, the NSF Dear Colleague letter garnered 132 signatures, just two from Republicans and the rest from Democrats. The DOE SC letter had similar results, with 81 members signing, five Republicans and 76 Democrats.

Contrast this with Dear Colleague letters circulated during 2006-07 fiscal year in support of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. At that time, Dear Colleague letters on the issue of science funding typically gathered about 30 percent of signatures from Republicans and about 70 percent from Democrats. In just a few short years, we have gone from significant input from both sides of the aisle to an almost entirely one-sided affair.

While the state of current affairs is troubling, we can still take action. The APS Office of Public Affairs will continue to make you aware of opportunities to call your congressional representatives and senators regarding signing future Dear Colleague letters. Additionally, the office will continue to work with both political parties to promote bipartisanship in science.

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho: U.S. Needs Strong R&D Portfolio to Remain Globally Competitive


U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-3rd-FL) writes in support of science in APS’ Capitol Hill Newsletter. Read the piece:



Extending Nuclear Power Plant Licenses Would Help U.S. Reach Clean Energy Goals


University of Texas (Austin) Physics Professor Roy Schwitters and Chairman Emeritus John W. Rowe, of Exelon Corp., make the case for extending the licenses of nuclear power plants in today’s Hill newspaper. Read the op-ed.

More Scientists Needed in Congress


Later this year, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, of New Jersey, will retire from Congress after nearly two decades as a champion of science.

His retirement will leave a big void and leave only one scientist in Congress, Rep. Bill Foster, of Illinois.

History has shown us that scientists bring their invaluable and much-needed technical expertise to the legislative process. The recently proposed FIRST bill, as noted in Michael S. Lubell’s Roll Call column, is the latest example of why more scientists are needed in Congress.


APS March Meeting Contact Congress

Q: What’s the best-spent minute at the March Meeting?
A: Stopping by the Contact Congress booth to sign your name to letters to your Congressional delegation on the importance of federal funding for basic research. It takes only a minute. By doing so, you are making your voice heard in Washington and helping to influence the funding levels for physics research and education. To amplify the impact, the APS Washington Office follows up each letter with a call or visit to congressional staff.
The strongest and most persuasive advocates on Capitol Hill come from a Senator or Representative’s constituents. That means you! If you live in the United States, you are qualified to write to your members of Congress.
Contact Congress is overseen by the APS Washington Office. If you have any questions about what is happening in D.C., just stop by the Contact Congress desk to ask the experts.
Contact Congress Hours:
Monday, March 3 – 9:00am–5:00pm
Tuesday, March 4 – 9:00am–5:00pm
Wednesday, March 5 – 9:00am–5:00pm
Thursday March 6 – 9:00am–5:00pm
Friday, March 7 – 9:00-12:00pm
Contact Congress Location:
Convention Center, F Lobby

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