HEPAP Meeting

HEPAP is now meeting in Washington, presentations available here. Like the rest of science, HEP has been doing very well in the federal budget, including a temporary increase due to the stimulus program. Excluding stimulus money, the president’s FY2011 request has total DOE HEP funding up 2.3% (theory is up 3.8%) over FY2010. This is about 10% over the FY2007 level. At the NSF, the proposal is for a 2.8% increase in physics research spending in FY2011, up 20% since FY 2007.

The NSF will be funding several “Physics Frontier Centers”, with five-year renewable awards of 1-5.5 million $. Pre-proposals are due in August.

The DOE has been emphasizing Early Career Programs, with 14 “Early Career Awards” to tenure-track physicists made in HEP in FY1010. Six of these went to HEP theorists, pretty much all in phenomenology, with funding for string theorists not popular these days it seems.

With the particle theory job market a complete disaster, particle theorists somehow managed to convince the DOE that the answer to the problem is to produce more particle theory Ph.Ds. There is a new program of HEP Theory Fellowships funding (with two-year fellowships) an additional five students this year, five more each year in the future. So I guess, steady-state, the idea is to add 10 more theory Ph.D.s/year, into a job market where the total number of permanent jobs/year is about 10.

Update: Science magazine has a story here about budgetary problems of the DUSEL project.

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15 Responses to HEPAP Meeting

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    Well, even without the extra DOE fellowships there would be a steady stream of particle theorists. They seem pretty set on going into particle theory, money or not.

    For instance, here at UC Irvine there is a constant scare among the particle theory grad students that if there isn’t enough TA positions in the coming quarters, they may have no source of funding at all. (At least, this is what they tell me. They always TA and have been warned there might not always be enough TA slots for everyone.)

    However, even with the realization that they may have to be a grad student with no funding at all, including no TA position, at some point in their grad career, there is always a steady stream of people who sign up and say “Well, I didn’t become a physicist for the money.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m starting a PhD in string theory. Is it possible to switch to phenomenology for postdoc, if the job market continues to favor phenomenology? I don’t like this trend. What they call “phenomenology” is stuff that is as speculative as string theory, yet somehow they convinced everyone that it is down-to-earth physics. Yeah LHC is going to produce results soon, lets focus more on phenomenology! And do lots of “model building” out of nowhere to predict what will happen! I won’t object to this trend if LHC has really found something very interesting that needs investigation, but such “warming up” before LHC results is not very rational, and is not fair for more formal theorists.

  3. Avidan says:

    What is the logic of supporting tenure-trackers if they have a job, while those whose research the DOE should really be supporting, are people without a tenure-track and that, despite them not doing string theory, are forced out of the system to do finance ?

  4. Peter Woit says:


    One justification for creating these well-funded grants to tenure-track physicists is that a lot of the money will go to their employers (mostly universities, sometimes government labs), encouraging said employers to turn these tenure-track positions into permanent ones, and/or create more tenure-track ones.

    Put differently, if this grant program didn’t exist, there would be six more tenure track theorists without a grant, in danger of not getting tenure (with one permanent particle theory job disappearing), and six institutions that would think twice before agreeing to another tenure-track line in particle theory.

  5. David B. says:

    Dear Peter,

    This complaint is very unfair to both theorists and the DOE.

    The past few years have seen a steady erosion of the support in individual grants, to the point where many theorists can not pay to support students any longer. The salaries of students and researchers has gone up, and the grant amounts have been steady or declining.

    The fellowship program is to remedy somewhat that situation. It is competitive and will be similar to some extent to the NSF graduate fellowships.

    Also, the early career award is the new name for what used to be the OJI awards. These are the Junior Investigator grants that the DOE has been awarding for many years past under a new name.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    David B,

    The idea of the OJI/Early Career grants seems like a good one to me. Anything that supports more tenure-track or permanent positions is helpful.

    On the other hand, the huge imbalance between the number of particle theory Ph.Ds awarded and the number of permanent positions has always seemed to me very unhealthy for the field. If the trend is that DOE/NSF money and university budgets are tighter and able to support fewer permanent faculty in particle theory, they should also be supporting fewer graduate students.

    Among the various problems that the field of particle theory suffers from, too few Ph.D. students being trained for the available permanent positions is not one of them. I understand extremely well that from the local point of view of any particular faculty member at any particular university, more Ph.D. students in their subject is a good thing. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing globally.

  7. A String Theorist says:

    Agreeing with the first comment about the steady stream of particle theorists:

    On our graduate admissions committee there has been an ever-increasing pressure to try to throttle back the number of HET students we admit, but it never works (mostly, because of people who write an ambiguous statement of interests, or who simply lie about what they want to work on.)

    This year we tried a quota of three for the HET group, but now we are hearing back from admitted students and at least eight of them have listed HET as their first area of interest. Meanwhile the various (condensed matter, astro) experimentalists in our department are in serious trouble because they can’t attract enough students to staff their equipment.

    So, there is still huge demand for particle theory Ph.Ds. Apparently, despite the hype, young people still recognize the discovery of string theory as one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements.

    P.S. I also certainly agree with Anonymous 1:37 — I distinguish between “hard” and “soft” phenomenology, the former comprising actual data analysis and Monte Carlo coding, while the latter is not only more speculative than string theory but also significantly less useful.

  8. Paul Wells says:

    I think it is unhealthy that the state of Physics seems to depend so much on LHC results.

    What if LHC just discovers the Higgs with a mass of 120 GeV ?

    What are all those LHC experimentalists and string theorists going to do next ?

    I think there should be a better balance with areas such as dark matter searches, LIGO, condensed matter, low temperature physics, neutrino physics etc.

    In addition I am not sure that an experiment with thousands of PhDs provides good training for those PhDs.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Paul Wells,

    Unfortunately, prospects for progress in HEP and thus for it remaining a healthy scientific field, do depend strongly on LHC results. This is an unavoidable aspect of the science and of how difficult it is to do experiments at the energy frontier.

    In the US, funding for LHC research is a relatively small part of the reseach budget, with a lot of attention going to the subjects you suggest.

  10. Paul Wells says:

    Point taken – but at some point building larger accelerators is just impractical.

    In addition neutrino measurements are pretty much guaranteed to give useful data for theorists.

    Maybe accurate neutrino masses /mixings would give a clue as to why there are 3 generations of leptons ?

    I think this might be more profitable than building bigger and bigger accelerators that may not discover anything interesting.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Because there is no viable way to compete with the LHC at the energy frontier, US HEP is already putting its emphasis on the kind of neutrino experiments you suggest (Fermilab’s next generation “Project X” is being designed largely to produce an intense neutrino beam).

    If there really is nothing interesting at LHC energies, and surprises in neutrino physics, maybe this will work out very well for the US…

  12. Per says:

    It’s a nice thing that the current administration at least live up to one of its promises…

  13. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, but note that this recent increase in science spending is taking place in the context of large increases in all federal spending to fight the recession. As (and if…) the recession ends, there will have to be significant budget cuts in coming years to bring down the current large deficits. It’s when decisions have to be made about what to cut that we’ll find out how dedicated the administration (and the Congress) is to science spending…

  14. Markk says:

    “I think it is unhealthy that the state of Physics seems to depend so much on LHC results.”

    What ever gave you that idea? Most of the physicists and most of the papers and most of the work done in physics wouldn’t even notice if the LHC imploded tomorrow. Well they would notice and be sad but it wouldn’t directly affect their work. It is only High Energy Particle Physics and its theorists which depend on LHC. That is literally a small fraction of physics. Typical of the attitude of many science newspeople though to really focus on that area alone.

  15. chris says:


    actually (and naturally) it is really the HEP-experimentalists. a sizeable fraction of us HEP-theorists are doing perfectly fine without LHC.

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