More on FY 2008 HEP Budget Cuts

The disastrous US HEP budget cuts that were announced just before Christmas, a quarter of the way into the fiscal year, have been getting a lot more attention from bloggers now that the holiday season is over, and their implications are starting to become clear. There are new blog posts from HEP bloggers Tommaso Dorigo, Alexey Petrov, Gordon Watts, and Michael Schmitt (as well as non-HEP blogger Chad Orzel).

It seems to me that Gordon Watts has it about right, entitling his posting “Screwed by the Democrats”. As far as I can tell, very few people know who it was that made the last-minute decision to hit HEP with these huge budget cuts targeted at its future programs or what their justification for this was. Presumably this was done by certain staff members of the heads of the relevant Congressional committees. Gordon explains how all the evidence points to physics getting cut precisely because the relevant parts of the executive branch had made it a priority in their proposed budget. When the Democrats lost the game of chicken that they and the White House were playing with the budget, and had to find some way to make cuts at the last minute, things that were an administration priority were first in line to get cut. So, HEP lost out here not because it has done a bad job at making its case, but because it did too good a job….

One reason that these large cuts had to be made was the decision by the Congressional leadership not to do what they had done last year, which was to cut all earmarks from the DOE budget. A new AAAS analysis concludes that the new budget contains $4.5 billion in R and D earmarks, and that the DOE and Department of Agriculture were the most heavily earmarked R and D agencies.

Some bloggers have suggested that physicists need to redouble their efforts in public education about HEP, but I think Gordon is a bit closer to the right idea, as he has sent $250 as a campaign contribution to Bill Foster, a Fermilab physicist who is running for Congress. Probably even more effective would be if the APS would put out a web-page explaining exactly which of our Congressional representatives were responsible for deciding to hit HEP with these cuts. If they would do that we could then all write to these people saying that we appreciate their public service and include a large check for a campaign contribution, at the same time mentioning that HEP funding happens to be a big personal concern. This seems to be how US democracy works these days: you need to pay to not get screwed, and we haven’t been paying…

As for what the effects of these cuts are, there’s more news coverage here, here, here, here, and here (Fermilab has a web-page of links here). Here is the text of SLAC director Persis Drell’s talk at an All Hands meeting there. The effect of the cuts on SLAC will include having to lay-off 125 people and shut down the B-factory at the beginning of March. Layoffs will be announced in early February, with people leaving their jobs in early April. Senator Durbin of Illinois is talking about an effort to add money for Fermilab to the Iraq War “emergency funding” bill the Senate will be taking up this spring, but says “It won’t be a huge amount… I don’t want to suggest to anyone we will make them whole.” It’s unclear whether this is a realistic possibility, or just Durbin trying to look like he is doing something about this.

Update: Here’s a letter about this from Dennis Kovar at the DOE. There’s a detailed article about the situation by Adrian Cho at Science magazine.

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34 Responses to More on FY 2008 HEP Budget Cuts

  1. Peter Woit says:

    A reminder: informed comments are welcome, but uninformed commentary on any issue. but especially this one, isn’t. If you want to engage in discussion of this issue at the level of “it’s better to fund (socially desirable goal X) than HEP”, please do this elsewhere.

  2. Zathras says:

    I reiterate my earlier comment that this would never have occurred if HEP had a competent lobbying organization. This is never a problem in other sciences, such as biology and chemistry, which have strong, focused lobbying help from Big Pharm.

  3. Physics Today will be looking closely at the science policies of the presidential candidates at We’re still adding material of the moment, but there’s enough there for some conclusions on the future of science and HEP under the next administration. Feel free to comment on the site, or submit a longer article for posting.

  4. Nugae says:

    Isn’t this all a bit supine?

    Why not announce the immediate and indefinite closure of all HEP programs, giving the reason that modern science requires reliable funding? Instead of trying to beg for a little more money here, a little more there, say clearly and straightforwardly that you appreciate the careful reasoning that went into the legislators’ decision and that you accept that the United States as a country is simply too poor nowadays to be able to afford big science. Express the hope that Europe and China may be able to continue human progress in this field.

    Don’t go grovelling to the people who voted this in: instead, make sure that everyone knows who has brought the entire country its biggest international humiliation since Sputnik.
    If your only response to spiteful budget cuts is an indignant whimper, you deserve to suffer them.

  5. woit says:

    Thanks Paul. Would be interesting to hear what the candidates think about Congressional R and D earmarks.


    I see a few minor possible problems with your plan…

    The first is that I still can’t figure out who is actually responsible for this. It would be nice to know who they were, and what their justification for these actions was. Once they’re identified, then we can argue about whether it’s likely to be more fruitful to try and publicly shame them or pay them off so they don’t do it again.

  6. Gordon Watts says:

    Just a quick point — it wasn’t just HEP that got cut. ITER, for example, got hit pretty hard as well. There was also an across the board cut of about 1% (which combined with inflation makes it more like 3-5%). But clearly, part of the problem seems to be that we did lobby effectively, got the WH on board, and it looks like that raised the profile enough to make us a target.

  7. woit says:

    Thanks Gordon,

    I agree. If it were only HEP that got cut, then the explanation could just be that some people think HEP shouldn’t be funded since it isn’t aimed at practical applications. ITER is very much aimed at an important practical application, and it too was cut. It looks like someone decided to go after the physical sciences initiative of the Bush administration, especially large projects it was supposed to fund.

  8. Yatima says:

    pay them off so they don’t do it again

    Commissioner: “What a nice little HEP budget you have there. A shame if something should happen to it…”

    Physicist: “I do think, sir, that you will very much appreciate this somewhat stuffed brown envelope…”

    Commissioner: “Thank you. It’s a pleasure discussing the future of science with you. If you will excuse me, I have an important meeting concerning urban waste management.”

  9. Pingback: Budget Cuts not just HEP « Life as a Physicist

  10. nobody says:

    Legislators will not continue to spend money funding big science. Here’s why.

    If the research done would be done instead in Europe or China, then the benefits of that research would still go to everyone, right? That is, a major physical discovery of the laws of nature would identically benefit those who funded and those who did not fund the research, so why fund it? Let the Europeans pay for it.

    It can be argued that someone should fund the research, since it benefits everyone.

    But the fallacy in that reasoning is that pure research by definition takes decades before it concretely benefits anybody. Sometimes longer than that. No congressman, and few of his constituents, is likely to be in office – maybe even alive – by the time any research benefits come to fruition. By comparison, social programs have immediate benefits: criminals are incarcerated; people are given health insurance; the poor and minorities are helped; and so on.

    The political support for science in the United Science was, historically, anomalous, driven mainly by the unique circumstances of the Cold War. I don’t think it can continue.

  11. chris says:

    hey, nobody,

    let me recapitulate… 1938, nuclear fission was discovered. 1945 the first bomb was dropped.

    yes, let china lead the way into exploring ewsb, dark matter&co. sure the us will benefit equally from it :-).

  12. Dave Miller says:


    Your example actually proves “nobody’s” point, doesn’t it?

    Fission was discovered in Nazi Germany; the US built the bomb.

    This example (and it would be easy to give many others) demonstrates that the pure-science discovery and the practical applications often occur in different countries.

    When I was a doctoral student at SLAC around 1980, faculty openly joked about the fact that the feds kept funding us simply because physicists had created the bomb and the politicians feared we might come up with something else of the same sort. The joke of course was that nobody could come up with any plausible scenario by which this could happen — the feeling was that we were putting one over on the dumb politicians.

    Well, at least on this issue, the politicians seem to have gotten the joke.

    Of course, HEP funding is such a tiny fraction of the budget that it really hardly matters fiscally. But this does leave it vulnerable to the sort of political infighting Peter describes.

    And, Peter, I doubt that there are anywhere near enough physicists in the country to affect such matters by their campaign contributions. There is also the problem that quite a few of us care more about other issues than HEP – for example, my top issue this year is this fraudulent war, not HEP funding: I’d guess this is the case for many other physicists.


  13. Roger says:

    As the previous posters have pointed out, it is very difficult to get across the message to a national government that it should fund HEP.

    I suspect this is especially true in the US since, in order to make progress, one has to perform big research in the context of international collaborations. In such circumstances, it is difficult to realistically say that the US is the undisputed “leader”, something which politicians may well want to hear.

    I believe that HEP needs a rethink, not only in the US, but also in the rest of the world regarding how we sell the subject.

  14. Peter Woit says:


    The beauty of the current US political system is that your ability to influence government policy just depends on how much cash you can devote to doing this, not on how many people agree with you. And also this has nothing to do with whether you want the person you are paying off to be re-elected or not. If you think their opponent would be better, all you have to do is give money to both, more to the one you would most like to see elected, but enough to both to make sure they pay close attention to details of spending bills they otherwise couldn’t care less about, so they don’t screw you and your scientific field.

    We really do though need to first actually identify the right people to pay off. Especially if they’re from small states with safe seats, the sums needed should not be exceptionally large. Just one ex-physicist now working for a successful hedge fund and willing to devote a non-trivial percentage of his latest bonus check to this cause would probably do the trick. My understanding is that the way this is done is that you actually hire a professional fixer (a “lobbyist”) to figure out how to, within the constraints of the law, get the biggest bang for your buck.

    By the way, in case this isn’t obvious, I’m not really joking here. I do think this is probably the best way to get the US government to continue funding HEP research as it has done in the past. And I also think this is completely appalling and disgraceful.

  15. Zathras says:


    What you say about the importance of lobbying is in on the right track, but enormously over-simplified as to how it actually works. Look at it from the perspective of an overworked congressional staffer. He or she has literally thousands of projects to wade through, deciding which to recommend and which not to. It is impossible for a staffer to make an informed decision on his own about every project. Here’s where a lobbyist comes in. A lobbyist explains the worth of the project he is lobbying for. It’s about access and the efficient, targeted spread of information (as opposed to putting up a website which nobody in Congress likely has ever seen.

    Forget about campaign finance. The dollar amounts needed now are too high for a small collection of non-billionaire individuals to reach a meaningful set of legislators. Reaching some random legislator will not help, since he or she needs to be on the right committee-otherwise, he’s just one out of hundreds.

    In the past, lobbying the executive branch was enough. Lobbying the legislative branch is now at least as important, and that is where the hole has been in physics lobbying.

  16. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks. Of course I was over-simplifying for effect. But it still seems to me that to get “efficient, targeted spread of information”, you need “access”, and what is going on these days is that this is effectively being bought and sold.

    I’d still like to know who the relevant congress-people are in this case. I’m assuming it’s a very small number. Maybe these people are unusually high-minded and I’m overly cynical in my assumption that money could be effectively used to get them and their staffers to pay more sympathetic attention to the HEP funding problems.

    I’m also curious to hear an estimate as to what sums of money would be useful for this purpose. While presumably these are beyond the reach of the average person living on an academic salary, there are increasingly large numbers of people out there with physics backgrounds enjoying exponentially larger incomes. While, these are not large enough to fund HEP research, but they may be large enough to convince people in Congress to do so.

  17. Haelfix says:

    I do have friends up high in NSF who told me that the primary reason this occured was someone up high in the Dems wanted to make a point along the lines of

    ‘The R’s forced us into a meager budget, so we had no choice. If you want your budget back, vote for us and we will increase spending’

    Scientists are a loyal Democrat voting block, so this might compel them to come out and vote in an election year.

    Anyway its maddening. Republicans do the right thing and fund HEP in general, but their reasoning is wrong and a relic of the cold war. Democrats have this nasty tendency to leave NSF a low priority, but have the correct reasoning as to why Science is important.

  18. Haelfix says:

    Its also become horribly obvious that we do indeed need to do a better PR job. For smart people you would have thought this would have been blindingly obvious a long time ago.

    eg: Taking a percentage of the NSF budget and sticking it into a private lobbying group would likely pay for itself and then some.

    I also noticed that Mr Gates privately funded part of an astrophysics project. It would be nice if that would cascade throughout the legions of uber wealthy americans who do so much for charity. I for one have no problem with having a Microsoft logo on my future pet linear accelerator.

  19. Visitor says:

    Let me see if I understand this correctly. Scientists are a “loyal Democratic voting block”… so the Democrats decided to gut their appropriations – thereby informing them that if they (the scientists) want their funding back, they had better vote Democratic in the upcoming election – which the scientists would do ANYWAY even without the budget slashes. And the scientists should vote Democratic so that the funding will be restored A YEAR FROM NOW – i.e. AFTER the damage is done.

    Does it ever occur to anyone here that the Democrats have NO need to be concerned about your votes BECAUSE you are Democrats who have NO intention of EVER voting Republican. Why should they care about it, if you are so staunchly Democratic that they need not compete for your votes? If you were potential Republican voters, the Democrats would not dare to slash your appropriations.
    Not only is the rationale reported by Haelfix unconvincing, but am I the only one who remembers civil rights demonstrations against NASA for spending money that (the demonstrators thought, I suppose) would otherwise end up in “anti-poverty programs” and similar pork-barrels? There might be OTHER constituencies in the Democratic Party that are either anti-science-funding, or are more important to placate than scientists, or BOTH, y’know?

    How about THIS: the scientists vote NOT for the Democrats, who are willing to gut the science budget this year, but vote for the REPUBLICANS in the upcoming elections, because it is the REPUBLICANS who want to give priority to science spending and the DEMOCRATS who want to CUT it.

  20. AGeek says:

    I see repeated calls here for essentially using public money to lobby politicians for more public money. Surely anything along these lines would be illegal? If not, it should be… but anyway, it would be good if somebody who knows the legal facts could enlighten us about them.

    Regarding wealthy ex physicists, it occurs to me that they presumably left for a reason. I wouldn’t necessarily count on them to be sympathetic to those who didn’t (yet).

  21. Haelfix says:

    Thats just what I was told roughly, I have no reason to doubt the party. Obviously its a little more complicated, as all budget fights are. Not just in congress but in the heart of the NSF and DOE.

  22. JC says:

    Are there any other physicists in congress, besides Rush Holt and Vernon Ehlers?,_Jr.

    With respect to lobbying, maybe these two would be the easiest to approach first concerning physics funding issues.

  23. J.F. Moore says:

    Note that the IL governor’s letter to the president a few days ago is less balanced than that of the two senators plus one representative sent in December. It discusses cuts to Argonne as “drastic” but Fermilab as “substantial”. The press release names two projects at Argonne, but specifies none at Fermi. I do not know if these implications are deliberate.


    Chemistry and biology are in general doing better than physics, but very few university and national lab based programs benefit from a pharma lobby. Many research programs are cut every year and research groups do struggle and die despite producing very well regarded work – but you don’t usually hear about them because they aren’t high-profile, billion dollar level projects like ILC or ITER.

  24. DB says:

    I didn’t get that sense from the governor’s letter but I expect that in practice, politicians do distinguish between user facilities which have been created out of old HEP accelerators and which are designed to be useful to industry, and HEP facilities such as Fermilab.
    The cuts at Argonne are to the Intense Neutron Source and the Advanced Photon Source, if I understand correctly, both are mainly used by material scientists and chemists. However, there are alternatives to the APS (not that the APS is being shut down, just on a reduced schedule), such as the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven, the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley. And there are other pulsed neutron sources (Lujan at Los Alamos, the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge) most of which seem have remarkably similar missions. And there will be the coherent x-ray lasers coming onstream at SLAC and DESY in years to come.
    So material scientists and chemists would seem to be doing pretty well out of the conversions of old HEP facilities at least according to this:

  25. J.F. Moore says:


    In no way do I want to debate HEP versus other science priorities, but I did find some misconceptions in your comment that I think do need to be clarified.

    1. The user facilities named are in a different office and budget category than HEP, called basic energy sciences (BES).

    2. A small minority of those facilities are “conversions of old HEP facilities”; the APS, NSLS, and ALS, for example are 100% greenfield, many others are modestly leveraged.

    3. Cuts to BES affect programs at all of these facilities, not just at Argonne, so the whole user community is competing for dwindling beamtime.

    4. It is not always simple for a user to simply move to a different facility. Some are based locally, others have experiments that took years to build. Perhaps a useful analogy would be a very small detector for an HEP machine and its associated collaboration.

    5. The users of these facilities include many physicists, biologists, and engineers as well as chemists and materials scientists. Industry represents a small fraction of the users. In addition, the staff at these places contribute to accelerator technology; many freely move between BES and HEP machines (or the foreign equivalent).

    6. Cuts at Argonne are not just to IPNS and APS – for example, there is a high energy physics division that is obviously affected. The budget hasn’t resolved at the level of the smaller programmatic divisions yet; it was simply bad enough overall that lab management recognized it had to make some drastic changes immediately by closing IPNS.

    My initial comment was just meant to point out that I think, for whatever political reason, the defense of ANLs budget seems to be stronger than FNAL at the moment – not that I think it is proper or justified at all. History has demonstrated that when scientists attack each other over budgets that usually everybody involved loses.

  26. Zathras says:

    J.F Moore,

    In your response to me, you are comparing apples to oranges. The fact is that big pharm has lobbied strongly for all the big dollar biology and chemistry projects, such as the Human Genome Project. In contrast, there has not been significant industry lobbying (at least in Congress) for the big physics projects.

    While it is true that there may not be specific lobbying for most of the smaller bio/chem projects, there is still a trickle down effect such that, once the people who need to know understand the importance of the big bio/chem projects they are more likely to understand the importance of the smaller projects. The smaller projects may not be directly connected to the big ones, but the smaller project PI’s still know how to word things to make them appear related. Almost any human genetics grant proposal or other funding request brings up the HMG.

  27. DB says:

    Your initial comment drew attention to your perception of the governor’s possible preferential defence of Argonne over Fermilab. Argonne is now principally funded by BES while Fermilab is mainly HEP funded.
    I was simply drawing attention to what is the major trend within DOE laboratories formerly dedicated to HEP research, namely, their repositioning as BES-funded user facilities for use by materials scientists and chemists with a view to doing research with practical applications to industral problems, while leaving the pursuit of HEP increasingly to foreign powers.
    Right now, SLAC is the typical example: BABAR is shut down early, while parts of the old linac are being converted to house the LCLS, whose funding will transition from HEP/BES funding this year to full funding by BES next year.
    While some believe that the recent cuts to the HEP budget are the result of Congressional shenanigans and revenge, others view this as a smokescreen which obscures the continued implementation of a well-thought-out strategic decision.
    If, as you seem to suspect, the governor is pushing Argonne over Fermilab, then he is also pushing BES over HEP (and yes, I know there are some HEP projects at Argonne) and perhaps he is doing this because he believes this approach is consistent with federal priorities.
    I am not interested in debating the merits of such priorities, I just want to understand what is really going on.

  28. J.F. says:

    @Zathras – I think we disagree on too much to comfortably hash it out here.

    @DB – You are certainly right about the trends. I was mainly nitpicking above, but I also want to deflate the common assumption that HEP folks seem to make: that all other scientists have no serious budget problems.

    Thanks to Peter for hosting a venue where some of us can puzzle this out, and hopefully share info as its learned.

  29. DB says:

    You might find the following just published interview with Stephen Weinberg of interest.
    In it he spends a good deal of time attacking the budget priorities of NASA.
    The example of the 1 billion $ European-built Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer which NASA now says it won’t launch is yet another interesting example of how the US is treating its international “partners”.

  30. Al Newmann says:

    This seems to me to be just another example of the Great Sucking Sound Ross Perot talked about. The US continues to lose industrial and scientific capabilities to foreign lands. It will not be too much longer until the only jobs left in the US will be Government programs for managing the unemployed and protecting Government officials and our ruling elite from the poor, hungry, and homeless.

  31. nobody says:

    Why do physicists so often attack the funding of other science projects?

    Weinberg, in his interview, argues at length that NASA funds would be better spent on other scientific research.

    The budget is about $1.2 trillion. NASA’s budget is $9 billion. Some NASA funds do help science. So why does Weinberg not complain about expenditures in the remainder of the budget, most of which does not help science in any way?

    I am not trying to make a political point here – I am truthfully confused at why scientists so often attack other scientists’ funding. Wouldn’t it be more productive for scientists to argue that science as a whole should be better funded?

    (I have heard the red herring that science funding is a fixed pool so it’s a zero-sum game, but that’s false. In the 60s, for example, both NASA and research science were much better funded than they are now.)

  32. Peter Woit says:


    I think one could describe Weinberg’s not as attacking the funding of any science projects, but the funding of manned space missions, which are not the same thing. In practice, the problem of such funding causing science projects to end up defunded at NASA is a very real one, and I think most scientists share Weinberg’s view of the problem and frustration about what is happening. Just saying that everything should get funded isn’t very realistic or likely to be taken very seriously.

  33. Arun says:

    Via CapitalistImperialistPig – Bush said this in the State of the Union address:

    To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow. Last year, Congress passed legislation supporting the American Competitiveness Initiative, but never followed through with the funding. This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge. So I ask Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on Earth. (Applause.)

  34. Peter Woit says:


    Looks just like a replay of last year: the administration will propose sizable increases. Quite likely Congressional committees will hold hearings and approve them. Then, several months into the fiscal year, the actual budget will come out.

    This is an election year, so I doubt there will be a budget before early November, and depending on what the results are, perhaps the new budget won’t happen until next January, after the new Congress and president are in place.

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