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Italy's Nuclear Physics Chief: We Can Afford SuperB

18 October 2011 12:45 pm
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Astri e Particelle/INFN

Fernando Ferroni

Particle physicist Fernando Ferroni takes the reins as president of Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) at the end of the month. Ferroni, 59, is a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, and has worked on experiments at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, and INFN's Gran Sasso laboratory. INFN plays an important role in CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), as well as operating the Virgo gravitational-wave detector near Pisa, but perhaps Ferroni's greatest challenge will be to steer the construction of the SuperB electron-positron particle collider which is due to break ground near Rome this year. As Italy's economy teeters on the brink, can the country afford an expensive machine to investigate the balance between matter and antimatter in the universe? Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are your priorities as president of INFN?

F.F.: One is the budget. This has remained flat over the past couple of years and so is decreasing in real terms. Then there is the problem of getting jobs for young researchers. Last year the government brought in a law that means only about one-fifth of research positions that become vacant can be filled. This means that the number of researchers is reducing all the time.

Q: What will you do about this problem of turnover?

F.F.: I will put all the pressure I can on the government to reverse this. My idea is deregulation. It is the government's right to decide what the INFN's annual budget should be (currently it is about €270 million). But inside this number let me do what I think is best for this institution. If I need to replace 50 researchers I will do that but if not I will replace 20 and spend the rest on research. The problem is that the government applies its general or budget laws to the public sector as a whole, and we are part of the public sector. They always forget to make a distinction between research and public administration.

Q: SuperB has been estimated to cost between €500 million and €600 million. Where will this money come from?

F.F.: The Italian government has committed €250 million towards the cost of the accelerator, and the U.S. should provide in-kind funding in the form of parts from the decommissioned PEP-II facility at SLAC. As well as money from the Italian Institute of Technology for synchrotron lines, we also expect money from several other countries, including Russia, France, Spain, and possibly the U.K. But the funding situation is very delicate and until you sign the memorandum of understanding you don't know what the total will be.

Q: What form will the Italian government's funding take?

F.F.: This will partly come from the INFN, with 8% of its annual budget dedicated to SuperB (all research institutes in fact will have 8% of their budgets used for large-scale infrastructure projects). But of course the government will have to put in more, since with just this funding you couldn't build the machine. I hope the government knows where to find the rest of the money.

Q: Some physicists have warned that SuperB will deprive other experiments of funding. Is this a danger?

F.F.: We probably won't be able to start up as many other experiments as we would have liked in the past. But once we know the spending profile of SuperB we can adjust to it. We will have a complicated path to navigate and we will have to find €25 million from our research budget of €400 million over 6 years to build the detector. This €25 million will impact other projects. SuperB will perturb the system, but it would be strange for a big project not to do that.

Q: The project is due to be completed within 6 years. Is this realistic?

F.F.: That depends on when we start. I worked on the BaBar experiment at SLAC (which was fed by PEP-II) and there construction started in 1993 and by 1998 we had collisions. I don't see why in principle our machine can't be built as quickly as the one in America.

Q: Might SuperB be trumped by an upgraded Belle (the Japanese rival of BaBar)?

F.F.: The Japanese machine will switch on first. But its intensity will be lower, so eventually there will be a crossing point [when SuperB has collected more data]. If the Japanese machine starts 2 years earlier then that is not a reason to question SuperB. But any longer than that and there could be a problem.

Q: What other plans does the INFN have for future experiments?

F.F.: We want to consolidate and follow up on our big investment in the LHC. We also want to follow with extreme attention the search for gravitational waves in Virgo. And we are also assessing the possibility of building a kilometer-cubed-scale neutrino telescope in the Mediterranean. Plus, we have the best laboratories in the world at Gran Sasso for research on neutrinos and dark matter. These two areas of physics will stay at the top of our list.

Q: How important was the recent result by the OPERA [Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus] collaboration appearing to show that neutrinos travel faster than light?

F.F.: I'm not able to contribute anything on such a delicate measurement. Let us wait for the outcome of other experiments. Even at Gran Sasso we will try to redo the experiment with other detectors such as Borexino or LVD.

Q: Do you think OPERA was right to announce its results before publication in a journal?

F.F.: Speaking personally, and not as president of the INFN, I would have done it another way. I would have taken my evidence, got on a plane, and discussed the results with researchers at Fermilab, asking them to repeat the experiment before perhaps publishing two papers simultaneously in the same journal edition. But everybody has a different style. It's very easy to say, 'I would have done things differently;' I was not under that stress and tension.

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