Friday, February 17, 2006

Budget Monday

So, another State of the Union address, another federal budget announcement. We were in place this time around, unlike last year (see "Our moment--- and we missed it" feb 2005) --- Rob and Robin had dueling laptops, both surfing, trying to find the budget release. They hooked up to a real-time feed of the president's office announcing the budget, and they were racing around the internet trying to find real numbers. It was actually pretty exciting, believe it or not. They were trying to find out the fate of Fermilab, essentially --- I got a lot of hand-held camera and watched as they got some good news (Robin actually clapped and cheered).

Fermilab looked to do pretty well this time around. No funding was cut, and there was a modest increase (although still far short of their hopes in the last few years). Monica and I weren't exactly sure what to expect. Soon it became clear that it wasn't exactly peaches and cream. As Robin said, in order to throw a little bone to Fermilab, someone else had to take it on the chin. There just wasn't enough money to go around --- there were thumbs and fingers stopping up some of the holes, but the dike was still flooding.

Sure enough, NASA soon thereafter announced funding troubles. The Boston Globe published an article called "Young Scientists Hit the Hardest as US Funding Falls." Newsday reported that Brookhaven Lab had to accept donations from its board members to keep running its collider. And Newport News' Daily Press reports that Jefferson Lab, a physics laboratory run by the D.O.E. (the dept. of energy, the same dept. that funds Fermilab) has to eliminate up to 45 jobs and "slow the pace of research on equipment that brings scientists worldwide to Newport News."

So, despite the seemingly good news in Fermilab's budget, things are still far from rosy in the realm of science in America. So much so that recently a well-known and high-ranking physicist not only quit Fermilab in disgust, but quit the entire field of physics, he was so sick of the way things had been going.

So our story is not quite complete. We are after a couple more interviews, including (hopefully) one with Peter Overbye of the New York Times and Natalie Angiers (also of the NY Times, whom we've been trying to track down for months). We'd like to get another interview with the director of Fermilab, as well as one with our science advisor who has given us some very interesting information about the potential changing of who controls Fermilab: it's always been a consortium of universities, but in order to save money the D.O.E. is considering allowing an organization with connections to (of all things) ... Halliburton.

Whew. I feel like we need a degree in investigative journalism...

Oh, and a way to quit our day jobs...

PS I added some to the previous post, so check it out again.

Jet Set

On February 5 we met with John Conway at O'Hare, just as he was flying back to California. He and Robin fly back and forth between California and Fermilab about once per week. That means getting on a plane for a 3 hour flight about every three days. Personally, I don't think I could handle it, but the two of them seem to take it in stride. In fact, most of the physicists we've been talking to have integrated a massive travel schedule into their lives without too much difficulty. We know this because each time we've contacted them for interviews there's about a 1/3 chance they'll be in Washington DC, in Geneva, or somewhere else.

Anyway, we caught up with John because we wanted to talk to him before the budget is released. He had heard some optimistic news, which we later confirmed with Rob Roser. Apparently the budget will allow for a modest gain in Fermilab's budget, giving them a little breathing room. Not only that, in President Bush's state of the union address a few days ago he indicated a priority in funding basic science. It seems as though he has been hearing the same grumblings and worrying that we have been focusing on and is reacting to try to counter the idea that America's science acumen is in real danger. He also described an increase in funding for math and science in schools.

In fact, the "grumblings and worrying" were encapsulated in a report that came out in October of last year. It was commissioned by a couple of senators who asked the National Academy of Sciences to figure out what the US needed to do to "enhance the science and technology enterprise" in order to stay afloat. Ominously, the report that was written was entitled, ahem, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." Not exactly cheery.

So, anyone who read this report could see it coming in this year's state of the union address. Bush was not going to act as if he hadn't read it. According to a Baltimore Sun article, Bush said "In my State of the Union, I'm going to address this. In order for us to be competitive, we better make darn sure our future has got the skills to fill the jobs of the 21st century." The article goes on to say that the "Gathering Storm" report has "captured the administration's attention and is helping to shape Bush's agenda."

So, we'll be watching to see what gets said.

We also wanted to talk to John about something else --- in an email he mentioned that Fermilab's Tevatron was starting to look like "a dry hole;" in other words, without much chance for discovery. He seems to be focused more and more on making the jump to CERN in Geneva. He seemed to think that if a discovery were in the offing at Fermilab, they would have had traces of it by now. Since there has been nothing, it makes him think that any discovery possibilities lie in the energy levels beyond what Fermilab is capable of producing. I know I keep using car analogies, but they seem to work so well, so here's another: imagine those car crash facilities where they hook a car to a cable, run it down a tunnel, and smash it into something. Let's say they've rigged it to smash two cars together. The Ford facility can only get cars up to 50 mph for their crashes. But they're looking to see what happens when metal starts to break apart, and they can't get it to happen at a 50 mile per hour crash. Down the street, though, GM is building a tunnel that can crash cars together at 100 miles per hour. The Ford guy is starting to think that no matter how many 50 mph crashes they do, they won't discover anything new. He starts looking at the GM website under "employment opportunities."