by Ghost of John Brown
I know, I know, another article that could get me in trouble. I've said before that our budget problems are national, and we need to be willing to make cuts even in our own backyard. We need a thorough look at each and every program that the Federal Government (plus State and Local, but we'll focus on Federal today) undertakes and every program needs to be judged on its effectiveness. If it isn't keeping us safe, it if isn't growing our economy, or if it isn't necessary for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens, it's time to get the axe. Which leads me to Fermilab.
Recently, the Republicans voted to cut $61 Billion dollars from the Federal Budget (click here to see how tiny that is). A part of that $61 Billion is a cut of $1.1 Billion in scientific research. According to Senator Durbin, this would result in the loss of 1,000 jobs at Argonne and 400 jobs at Fermilab. My question - why put off the inevitable - why not close Fermilab now?
Fermilab was once the pre-eminent facility for High Energy Physics. However, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the border of France/Switzerland, which is just coming into operation, will dwarf the accelerator at Fermilab in terms of size, energy and ability to discover particles. It's only currently operating at half of its design energy, but has already set records. It is a dazzling facility. (Atlas Detector at CERN pictured to the right).
However, we need to get beyond the "gee-whiz" and determine whether or not spending on Fermilab is prudent. There are two basic types of scientific research: theoretical and practical. Even with theoretical scientific research, there is still a basic goal of getting to the understanding of science, which will lead to breakthroughs in development and our standard of life. Fermilab has made some fantastic discoveries, but most of us wouldn't know anything about them. The scientists at Fermilab have introduced us to top quarks, bottom quarks, charm quarks, tao neutrinos and numerous others. The question to be asked is how will the discovery of these particles enhance our lives? Even if you can deliver a tangible answer to that question, how would Fermilab be able to do a better job than the LHC?
If you look at Fermilab's website or look for the answer to the question "what has high-energy particle physics done for us?", most of the answers are not so exciting. The "discoveries" most often mentioned are based on the fact that Fermilab and other particle accelerators ask for really powerful instruments, so they were created. The World Wide Web is mentioned. Because scientists needed to transfer large amounts of data, they created the precursor to the internet, and that is somehow justification for the particle accelerators. Hmmmm, pretty dubious. Another benefit that is often mentioned is medical imaging. Because scientists needed to measure really small particles, they made really sophisticated instruments, which led to medical imaging. So, medical imaging wouldn't have been discovered otherwise? Another dubious claim. I am guessing that if we just put the money directly into research on supercomputers, medical imaging, etc., without all the particle wizzing around, we could have come to the same discoveries at a fraction of the cost. To say that supercomputing power was advanced just because we wanted it and threw a lot of money at it shows just how empty the argument is.
We could keep Fermilab going for a while. It could limp along for years doing minor research, but why? Are we going to make the case that budgets are tight right now and in a few years when we have more money we'll ramp back up? With Social Security starting to pay out more than it takes in, I don't see any hope in the medium or short range that we will get to big budget surpluses any time soon. If we think that Fermilab will have a big mission in a couple of years, we are only kidding ourselves. It's time to stop cold turkey.
There is good, basic research that needs to be done, and can be done effectively. Invest in clean coal technology. Invest in solar research. Invest in large scale battery technology (tied to solar and wind energy production). Invest in nano technology. All of these research areas and dozens of others have promise for future development. I would probably argue that most of this could be done more effectively through the private sector than in some government lab, but that will wait for another day.
Will the loss of Fermilab have an impact on the local economy. Yes, it will. Will the development of the land that Fermilab sits on hold promise for other jobs? Yes, it will as well. There are a lot of jobs that could be created with the redevelopment of 6,800 acres. The redevelopment of the Glenview Naval Air Station is a great example of this.
I'm not unsympathetic to the employees of Fermilab. I know several and I know that they wouldn't want to lose their jobs. At the same time, I look at the result of spending billions (if not trillions) of dollars every year that we don't have and the impact to people's lives as well. The money and resources that we have need to be spent wisely and efficiently. I make that argument that spending on Fermilab is neither. It's time to cut the cord.
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