Due to popular demand from the comment section, I spent some time this afternoon taking a look at the talks now posted from the KITP Snowmass on the Pacific conference held the past few days. This is part of an ongoing project for a US HEP Community Summer Study that will culminate at a meeting in Minneapolis later this summer. The US HEP community faces serious questions about what priorities for the future should be in an environment of flat-to-declining budgets, no energy frontier projects in the US, and discouraging news from the LHC about no evidence for BSM physics.
The KITP talks cover a wide range of topics, and I haven’t had a chance to look at very many of them. For theorists, one interesting session was the Wednesday panel on Structural Issues for Theorists, which featured presentations by and discussions with the people at DOE and NSF responsible for HEP theory grants (Simona Rolli and Keith Dienes). There’s a lot of information about the situation of US theory grants there, but I was a bit struck by the impression that despite the large problems faced by HEP in the US, for theorists things look much like they always have:
- Budgets are pretty flat. As salaries go up with inflation, and as new young people come into the system applying for grants, it’s harder and harder for people to get the grants and grant amounts they would like.
- The split between DOE and NSF funding of often exactly the same thing doesn’t make much sense and leaves people sometimes confused.
- There’s always a problem finding grant support for the number of students who want to do theory, leaving theorists trying to justify to their colleagues why their students should get more of the few TA positions available. The situation of funding about 180 theory Ph.D students in an environment where there are maybe 10 tenure track jobs/year in the country isn’t deemed even worthy of comment.
Some numbers from the presentations:
- The DOE spends roughly $25 million/year on positions at government labs, another $25 million/year on grants to universities (the bulk going to pay grad students/postdocs/summer salary). The NSF spends $13-14 million/year on grants to universities, another $6 million on Frontier Centers, some of which have an HEP theory component.
- DOE funds 49 PIs at labs, 221 PIs at universities, NSF funds 186 PIs at universities.
The DOE split by field is 128 Phenomenologists, 73 “Formal” (often “string theory”), 42 Cosmology, 27 Lattice Gauge Theory.
- DOE funds 123 postdocs, NSF funds 50 of them. DOE funds 130 grad students in theory, NSF 50 of them.
This stable system of government funding has been crucial in determining the structure of HEP theory in the US for the past few decades, and the academic system is built around it. I keep wondering what the effect will be as new sources of money come into the system from private sources, on scales approaching that of government funding. As a somewhat extreme example that is likely a one-time thing, last year the string theorists in Princeton got $15 million in checks from Yuri Milner, a number somewhat larger than the entire NSF $13-14 million/year budget for HEP theory.