A couple weeks ago a large group of US HEP theorists wrote a letter to the DOE High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) (available at page 7 here) expressing alarm at trends in DOE funding of HEP theory, ending with
We formally request that a subpanel of HEPAP be formed to investigate and better understand this damaging trend and to make recommendations to address its consequences and restore a thriving Theory program, and we strongly urge that HEPAP support measure to rebuild and maintain the prominent and world-leading standing of US High Energy Theoretical Physics.
The letter claims that since 2011 the overall DOE HEP Theory program has been cut by 17%, with the university component of this cut by 30%. It also claims that 25% of DOE-supported university theorists have had their funding cut off in the last four years, with the number of postdocs going down by about 30%.
At last week’s HEPAP meeting there was a discussion of this, but I don’t know what was decided. Some numbers presented there indicated that from FY2013-2015. the DOE theory budget went from $51.2 million to $49.32 million. The net number of funded PIs was reduced by more than 10% (25 out of about 230), with 52 PIs dropped, 27 new ones coming in. The conclusion of that presentation was that “The theory program in its current state cannot be described as thriving.” The emphasis in the letter and this presentation on “thriving” is a reference to one of the P5 recommendations that is supposed to be governing how the DOE HEP budget is allocated:
The U.S. has leadership in diverse areas of theoretical research in particle physics. A thriving theory program is essential for both identifying new directions for the field and supporting the current experimental program.
The most detailed recent information I can find about the DOE HEP theory budget is in this presentation from August. It shows a decline from FY10 to FY16 from $53.09 million to $46.69 million, with most of this in the component going to university groups, which went from $27.25 million to $21.765 million. The current number of postdocs supported is listed as about 125 (100 at universities, 25 at the labs), the number of graduate students is about 120.
Concern about this decrease in funding first became public two and a half years ago (see my blog post here) with Sean Carroll’s blog post describing a “calamity”. Various HEPAP presentations warned physicists about the dangers of public complaints and these died down for a while, but the continuing cuts to the university component of theory funding seem to have led to the decision to send this new letter.
An odd part of this story is that it’s unclear why this decision to reduce DOE HEP theory university funding significantly was made. It’s true that the overall DOE HEP budget has been cut over the same period (from $810.5 million in FY10 to $795 million in FY16) but unknown why the university theory component was cut 20% over this period while the overall cut was only 2%. Note that none of these numbers are adjusted for inflation.
It would be very interesting to hear comments from anyone who knows more about what is going on here. The usual generic comments that government spending is bad will be deleted. Keep in mind that the amount of money at issue here is (2.7% of the HEP budget, .00058% of the total federal budget) very small on the scale of government funding of science, and now ever small on the scale of private science funding (the Simons Foundation alone last year gave out $233 million in grants).