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Few Low Grades at DOE Science Facilities as U.S. Prepares to Set Priorities
1 March 2013 5:53 pm
It's a Lake Wobegon world when it comes to some big science facilities funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE): They're all pretty much above average, a DOE advisory board said today.
Lake Wobegon is the fictional town created by U.S. humorist Garrison Keillor "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Today's ratings of more than a dozen existing and planned DOE facilities—including nanoscience centers, x-ray and ultraviolet light sources, and neutron scattering devices—carried a similar skew. The evaluations came from DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC), a 25-member panel that helps steer one of the six major research programs within the department's $5 billion Office of Science. It was responding to a request from DOE science chief William Brinkman, who late last year asked BESAC and the five other advisory panels to help out with an effort to develop a 10-year plan that will set spending priorities for new and existing research facilities.
In particular, Brinkman's letter asked each advisory panel to consider how the facilities in their program "contribute to world-leading science," and to place each into one of four categories: "absolutely central," "important," "lower priority," and "don't know enough yet." He also wanted them to work fast, setting a 22 March deadline for responses.
Today, BESAC took a big step toward meeting that target by approving its facilities ratings list, which had been developed by a subcommittee. The action came near the end of a 2-day meeting held in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Overall, the group rated seven of 13 existing BES facilities "absolutely central" for cutting-edge science. Four were rated "important." And just two received the black mark of the "lower priority" ranking. However, one of the downgraded facilities, the National Synchrotron Light Source at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, is already scheduled to shut down in 2014 as its much bigger and better replacement is under construction next door. The other low priority facility, the Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is highly valued by researchers at other parts of DOE, committee members noted, but is of less importance to BES-funded scientists.
The panel also looked at four proposed new or upgraded facilities that are in DOE's pipeline; all were deemed "absolutely central." (For a list of the ratings, see below.)
The high rankings shouldn't be a surprise, because the facilities have to go through an extensive and "very thorough" review and justification process to win federal funding, BESAC Chair John Hemminger, a chemist at the University of California, Irvine, tells ScienceInsider. "If the answer wasn't: 'Yes, these are world-class facilities,' then the system was broken at some point," he says.
One thing the committee didn't do, however, is say which of its children it loves the most. "We were specifically told not to rank things relative to each other, but look at each alone," Hemminger says. Instead, Office of Science officials will do the ranking as it prepares the overall 10-year priorities plan. They will not only consider a proposed project's scientific worthiness, Brinkman's letter notes, but also its cost and readiness for construction.
BESAC hopes to complete a full draft of its ratings list next week. The Office of Science's facilities priorities plan is due on 30 September.
How BESAC rated the facilities
National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York—LOWER PRIORITY (closing 2014)
National Synchrotron Light Source - II (NSLS-II) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York—(under construction)—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, California—IMPORTANT
Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, California—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
HIGH-FLUX NEUTRON SOURCES
Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee—IMPORTANT
Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico—LOWER PRIORITY
NANOSCALE SCIENCE RESEARCH CENTERS
Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee—IMPORTANT
Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratoriues [sic], New Mexico—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York—IMPORTANT
Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) at Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
PROPOSED UPGRADES/NEW FACILITIES
APS upgrade—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
LCLS upgrade—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL
Next Generation Light Source—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL (but significant technical and engineering challenges remain before construction can be initiated)
SNS Second Target Station—ABSOLUTELY CENTRAL (but significant technical and engineering challenges remain before construction can be initiated)