Laurence Yaffe has gathered some information about DOE funding of US HEP theory groups, showing sharp drops (average 23%) in such funding for groups reviewed in FY2013 and FY2014. These drops imply serious reductions in the numbers of theory graduate students supported and in the number of postdoc positions funded. To get an idea of the reaction to these numbers, the file name is calamity.pdf. Sean Carroll has a blog posting here, also with the “Calamity” title.
There’s something very odd though about these numbers, with no explanation available from Carroll or Yaffe, who both interpret the situation as a sharp reduction in US government support for HEP theory. If you look at the numbers for total amount of funding, there’s no evidence of the 23% drop (for sources of numbers, see references in Yaffe’s document, the DOE HEP budgets here, and HEPAP presentations here). The recent Congressional agreement on a FY2014 budget puts the DOE HEP total at $798 million, significantly higher than FY2013 ($750 million) which was reduced by the sequester, and higher than FY2012 ($770 million) and FY2011 ($776 million). Of these amounts, the amount going to theory seems stable at around $50-$55 million/year (exact numbers depend on exactly what you include, Yaffe quotes FY12 and FY13 at an identical $51.3 million/year).
So, the “calamity” of collapse of government support for theory is somehow taking place despite no collapse in the amount of money budgeted for this. What is going on? I’d love to hear from someone who understands this. The only explanation I’ve seen is that this is a temporary phenomenon having something to do with how the budgeting process works. Note that with the way typical multi-year grants are made, the DOE is promising to provide money several years in the future, despite the current US budgeting environment, where budgets are typically set not in advance, but often very late. The current fiscal year’s budget was set last month, although the fiscal year started Oct. 1. This was considered a huge success… One conjecture is that the DOE has been promising less to theory groups, partly because they only recently found out about the good FY2014 result, and partly because of a policy change to budget for future year outlays in current years. If this is the source of the calamity, it should quickly disappear as the FY2014 money comes in and the transition to new budgeting ends. Yaffe examines some other possibilities for explanations, but without anything conclusive.
The main concern raised is about the effects of a reduction in the number of US HEP theory grad students and postdocs. Perhaps more worrying than this though should be the trend of numbers of permanent research positions in the subject, which Erich Poppitz has gathered here. These numbers come from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill, and show a constant level of 11 jobs/year for the past three years, about half the level of the years 2000-2007. The number of jobs posted this year is so far only 13, which can be compared to around 20/year in recent years. It’s still early in the season, so more jobs may appear, and more may get filled than in recent years, but the trend of US institutions hiring significantly fewer permanent people in HEP theory is clear. Given this trend, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that numbers of grad students and postdocs should also be reduced. There’s no evidence though that some decision has been made to do this, or that this is the reason for the numbers Yaffe is looking at.
Comments from anyone well-informed about this are strongly encouraged, while comments from people who just want to make the usual arguments about government funding for science rules/sucks will be deleted.
Update: More commentary at Ted Bunn’s blog. He sees this as possibly an implementation of changes at DOE designed to “decrease the effect of historical inertia”, which might be moving money from historically well-funded major groups to others.
Possibly all that’s going on though is just the “bridging” problem mentioned on slide 7 of this presentation. A decision was made to start grants later than in the past on April 1 (with the idea that typically it’s not going to be until that deep in the fiscal year that Congress has got its act together and given DOE a budget number). This meant though that money had to be taken out of upcoming grants to cover extending current ones until April 1 when new ones might start. The number on that slide reflects a 25% charge to new grants to cover this, suspiciously close to Yaffe’s 23% number.
The same slide though does point out that this is a temporary problem: “will be better in 2015”. If that’s all it is, and grad student/postdoc number are slated to go back up a couple years from now, maybe “calamity” isn’t the right word here.
Update: For more from Yaffe, see here.