Thursday, August 03, 2006

Using Mediciexity to Define the Future of U.S. Particle Physics

In modern scientific research, we find more and more often groups put together in a very multidisciplinary way. What can happen from a mix of people who are trained in a variety of fields is often rapid progress and new findings, and has been referred to as the Medici effect. Recently, a panel was put together to discuss and make recommendations to Congress about the future of American high energy physics. The U.S., which has been at the forefront of particle physics for decades, will lose its lead when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is commissioned in 2007 at CERN. The LHC will replace Fermilab as the world's most powerful accelerator, and numerous American physicists will center their research overseas (they have been doing so in larger and larger numbers for the past 8-10 years already).

Since 2004, a panel (EPP2010) was put together by the National Research Council, following a request by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, to set the course for U.S. high energy physics. Their report came out this past April. What is interesting about the panel, though, beyond their final report and recommendations, is the make-up of the panel. In the past, advisory panels consisted of high energy physicists and some administrators of national labs. This time around, knowing that our loss of the lead in this type of research was a certainty for many years to come, the NRC took a new approach and formed a multidisciplinary panel. The chair was Harold Shapiro, an economist and president emeritus of Princeton, and the other members included 3 Nobel winners (2 in physics, 1 in medicine), an astronomer, a former CEO of a technology firm, a former director of Brookaven National Lab, a former White House OMB official (expert in budgets), a former Presidential science advisor, a condensed amtter physicist, and then several high energy experts.

I think this is an important step not only for high energy physics, which historically has been viewed many non-physicists as a waste of time and vast sums of money, but for American science in general. I believe this panel will become (at least I hope it does) the model for how to map out the future of U.S. science in all areas of research because of the nature of science today. It is incredibly expensive, and more often than not research programs are emerging as multidisciplinary entities that require the efforts of numerous fields of study. I also think the make-up of the EPP2010, for instance, gives the science more credibility in the eyes of Congress and the public, because it addresses not only the particle physics/science issues, but applications in and out of the field and cost effectiveness. In the past, we (high energy physicists) have not been very good of communicating why the work is important and the many benefits that arise directly and indirectly from the research. This approach should begin to improve the communication, and should emphasize that the two types of science, applied and pure, cannot live without each other. Trying to take advantage of mediciexity is the way of the future.

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