Pier Oddone, the director of the sole lab in the United States specializing in high-energy particle physics, announced today he will retire on 1 July 2013. The announcement deepens the sense of transition for the U.S. particle physics community, which has faced a steady decline in funding and support for advanced accelerators in recent years. Oddone has headed Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, since July 2005.
"During Pier's 8 years as director, Fermilab has made remarkable contributions to the world's understanding of particle physics," said Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago and chair of the Fermi Research Alliance's board, which manages and operates the lab. "Pier's leadership has ensured that Fermilab remains the centerpiece of particle physics research in the United States."
But that centerpiece has been crumbling. In September 2011, lab officials pulled the plug on the Tevatron, the last remaining U.S. atom smasher. That move was underscored last month when physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, announced that their rival accelerator had spotted signs of what looks to be the Higgs boson, the last particle to be discovered as part of the standard model of particle physics.
In March, officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds Fermilab, announced that it could not afford the $1.5 billion price tag to build the lab's flagship project, the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE). Instead, DOE officials asked Fermilab physicists to come up with a plan to build LBNE in stages. But critics worry that strategy makes the project harder to sell to Congress and could put LBNE well behind a similar machine being built in Japan.
Oddone says he's not concerned about the fate of LBNE and other scheduled projects at the lab. And Congress, he says, hasn't been as tight with its wallet as critics often make out. The bigger concern, he says, is that recent administrations continue to prioritize applied research on topics such as energy and chemistry instead of basic physics, steadily shifting funds to support that work.
The recent success of LHC in spotting what looks like the Higgs boson "shows that the public does care about doing fundamental science," Oddone says. "But at some point the U.S. needs to decide if we are staying in the game of particle physics. We've reached a point where we do need to make investments if we want to remain world class."
A year from now, Oddone says, he hopes to focus on a stack of projects he hasn't been able to get to in recent years. They include writing, advocating for science in a more direct way than he can do now, and working at a vineyard he owns in Sonoma, California, which grows grapes for Zinfandel and Cabernet wines. "I think I will be busier than ever," he says.