Calamity?

Sean Carroll has a post about a report by Laurence Yaffe on the state of funding for theoretical particle physics in the US, or more specifically in the Department of Energy, which historically has been the big funding source in this field. They both use the word “calamity” to describe the situation, but as far as I can tell the evidence cited doesn’t support that conclusion.

(For what it’s worth, I see that Peter Woit views the situation the same way I do. For some people, that will increase my credibility; for others it’ll decrease it.)

Yaffe’s abstract:

A summary is presented of data obtained from a grass-roots effort to understand the effects of the FY13 and FY14 comparative review cycles on the DOE-funded portion of the US high energy theory community and, in particular, on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are beginning their careers. For a sample comprised of nearly all of the larger groups undergoing comparative review, total funding declined by an average of 23%, with numerous major groups receiving reductions in the 30–55% range. Funding available for postdoc or graduate student support declined over 30%, with many reductions in the 40–65% range. The total number of postdoc positions in this large sample of theory groups is declining by over 40%. The impacts on young researchers raise grave concerns regarding continued U.S. leadership in high energy theory.

Carroll:

Obviously this is unsustainable, unless as a society we make the decision that particle physics just isn’t worth doing. But hopefully things can be rectified at least a bit, to restore some of that money.

But the striking thing about Yaffe’s report is that it says precisely nothing about the total level of DOE funding in this field. What it says instead is that existing large particle theory research groups have had their funding cut. Is that because the funding is going away or because it’s going to other, smaller groups? As far as I can tell, Yaffe and Carroll assume the former, but they provide no evidence for it.

DOE did recently change their procedure for evaluating grants in various ways. According to Yaffe,

Three years ago, the Office of High Energy Physics (OHEP) within the Department of Energy made significant changes in how university-based research proposals are reviewed, switching to a comparative review process and synchronizing all new grants. Overt goals included decreasing the effects of historical inertia on funding levels for different groups, ensuring a level playing field, and moving to a start date for grants mid-way through the federal fiscal year by which time, it was hoped, Congressional funding decisions would normally be known.

The first two of those goals, it seems to me, pretty much say that the DOE is aiming to redistribute funds away from previously-large research groups (those that have benefitted from “historical inertia”). Yaffe gathered data on large research groups and showed they got smaller, precisely as you’d expect. So it’s not at all clear to me that the alarmist response to this information is warranted.

What we really need to know is simply how much funding high energy theory is getting in comparison with past years. That information isn’t as easy to find as you might think. The most recent DOE budget request does show a drop in high energy theory funding, but a more modest one than Yaffe’s figures, and in any case that wouldn’t have shown up in the figures yet. Over the few previous years, things seem pretty stable. Of course, “stable” in nominal terms is a modest de facto decline in real terms, but nothing like the proclaimed “calamity.”

I’m not a particle theorist, and I don’t deal with DOE, so I haven’t paid close attention to DOE funding levels over the years. It’s certainly possible that I’m missing something here. If anyone knows what it is, I’d be interested to hear.

Notes:

  1. One can take the view that the government has no business funding pure curiosity-driven research like particle theory anyway. I don’t agree with that view, although I do understand it.
  2. One can take the more moderate view that, even if the government should be funding things like particle theory, previous funding levels were too high and so a cut isn’t a “calamity.” I don’t have that great a sense of what funding levels are like in particle theory, so it’s hard for me to say for sure what I think about that. In general, I think we should be funding more science, not less, but then as a (modest) beneficiary of government research grants, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
Update: Joanne Hewett’s comment on Sean’s post is by far the most informative thing I’ve seen on this subject.

 

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