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Don't Bother to RSVP, NSF Says
12 August 2005 (All day)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) yesterday withdrew its support for a high-energy physics project planned for the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory after deciding that its budget couldn't handle the soaring costs. The decision, unusual for NSF, effectively kills the Rare Symmetry Violating Processes (RSVP) project just before construction was to begin on its two massive detectors.
RSVP consisted of twin experiments: one to see if a subatomic particle called the muon could transform into an electron, and another to look for unexpected differences in the behavior of matter and antimatter. Originally approved by NSF in 2000 as a $145 million project at the Upton, New York, lab, RSVP last fall received its first $15 million in construction funds from Congress. That triggered a fresh review of the project that bumped its construction costs to $282 million. Its lifetime operating costs tripled, from $80 million over 5 years to $250 million over 8 to 10 years.
The main culprit in the increase was the need to upgrade the lab's aging Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS), the accelerator that would provide a beam of protons for the experiments. Since 2002, the AGS has been used primarily to feed particles into the much larger Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which studies nuclear physics. The AGS would require substantial modification to meet the more exacting requirements of RSVP, and the entire cost of operating AGS would fall on RSVP if RSVP ran longer than RHIC.
Michael Turner, head of NSF's math and physical sciences directorate, says these added costs had to be weighed against the potential scientific gains from several physical science projects on the drawing board, including an underground laboratory to house experiments in physics, geology, and biology, the giant segmented mirror telescope, and an energy-recovery linear accelerator that will power an x-ray source for materials science research. In addition, he says RSVP's higher operating costs would have eaten into the directorate's existing budget for investigator grants.
Scientists involved in RSVP say that they were resigned to the foundation's decision after both House and Senate spending panels this spring yanked the project from NSF's 2006 budget request (ScienceNOW, 24 June). "Given Congress's position, I didn't see what else the National Science Board could do," says Michael Zeller, an experimenter at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and co-spokesperson for KOPIO, RSVP's matter-antimatter experiment.