HEP Theory Letter

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).

Update: A full copy of the letter with all signatures is here. An explanation of where the numbers in the letter come from is here.

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28 Responses to HEP Theory Letter

  1. Peter Shor says:

    I assume you mean the overall cut was 2% rather than $2.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,
    Thanks. Fixed.

  3. NoGo says:

    Might it be “because strings”? — all the “over-selling and under-delivering” by String theorists caused “powers that be” to loose their interest/trust in HEP theorists in general? Or such things are below the radar of the government?
    I have no idea how such decisions are made, and curious.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Most DOE grants aren’t going to string theory, but to other subfields, and I haven’t seen any evidence that string theory grants are being cut more than non-string theory grants. One could equally well speculate that it is phenomenology that it is the problem: with the LHC finding nothing to vindicate any BSM phenomenology, maybe someone has decided that less funding for that area is needed.

    One can find many plausible speculative reasons for why someone might think it a good idea to cut theory funding, but I’ve seen no evidence for any of them. Perhaps even the authors of the letter are in the dark (note that they don’t seem to be responding to a particular argument against their field), with one goal of the letter to find out why this has happened.

  5. John says:

    I know you like deleting comments from me but I’ll try one more time to answer your question with the facts even if you don’t like hearing them.

    The reason for the change is due to sequestration. Instead of individual appropriation bills the government was funded with CR’s (continuing resolutions). Now the sequestration deal required additional cuts. For FY 2013 there was a reduction that was going to impact the LCLS II upgrade project along with some other large planned programs.

    Congress no longer controlled the allocation process but did agree to shift funds to make sure the LCLS II project would continue. They took the funds from staffing related funds.

    Even last year on November 2nd 2016 a deal was reached by Obama and Congress that would modify the Budget Control Act of 2011. It raised funds for FY 2016 and this is why the overall dollars are not that large. DOE got a decent increase with this agreement. However, the agreement went to projects as it was only going to last for one year and therefore would not make sense to increase funding for staffing.

    So the answer to your question comes down to all the deals that were made by the administration and Congress in dealing with sequestration. The agreements to restored some funding were for specific projects and short term. Funding for HEP related felt the full weight of sequestration. Hence the difference in overall budgets and the larger cut to the area you mentioned.

    And finally there is one additional area that caused this difference. Fermilab has seen reduced funding each year as core research has shifted to the LHC. This funding is part of the reduction you see in HEP related projects. You can look up the FY 2013 budget act for more detail surrounding the Fermilab funding cuts.

    If you want to know more about the details you can research the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the yearly CR’s since then.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    I deleted the previous version of your comment only because all it contained was a simple unsupported claim (that sequestration was the reason) that seemed of no relevance to the issue (why a larger DOE university theory cut?) Thanks for the more detailed version, although I’m still having trouble understanding this well enough to be sure that the reasons you give explain what is going on.

    Two and a half years ago when this first came up there were arguments given that this was a technical problem (change in dates grants started, change in policy about later-year commitments). It seemed that if that was true, in later years the cuts should be restored, but instead they have gotten more severe.

    If the problem is just sequestration, presumably it should go away when there’s a final budget, no? If so, the response to the theory letter should just be a simple “this is a temporary problem, will go away when we have a budget”, right?

  7. JE says:

    Sorry if this is exactly what you meant by “generic comments that government spending is bad”, but maybe it’s just that, with such little recent progress and such big prospects of a desert ahead for HEP, someone at DOE (mistakenly) decided that cutting down HEP funds was a reasonable thing to do, with HEP Theory fund cuts being perceived as less unpopular than HEP experimental fund cuts.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    I think that’s a reasonable speculation, but I’ve seen no evidence in any public statement coming out of DOE that that’s the explanation for the cuts. Maybe the theory letter will lead to a response from DOE that will clarify whether that’s what is going on or whether it is something else.

  9. Dragster says:

    Is it possible that recent high-profile private funding, such as the Simons Foundation and Breakthrough Prizes, makes superficially informed DOE bureaucrats more comfortable with reducing the government funding?

  10. Fred says:

    Is there any statistics on the fraction of DOE HEP theory funds spent on summer salaries? Since the DOE introduced a summer salary cap not long ago, I’m wondering if this is the main reason for the decline in HEP theory funding?
    I don’t want to start a discussion about adequate salaries, but I do think that research grants should be used to support young researchers (postdocs and Ph.D.s) rather than to pay for the summer retreat of a well established (and typically reasonably well paid) Professor at Lake Winnebago.

  11. anon says:

    I’m not sure if funding young researchers, especially PhD students, more is a good idea. I don’t work in HEP, but in my field doing that has lead to overproduction of PhDs with not nearly enough permanent positions.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Maybe, but again, no known evidence that this is a factor.

    The number of grants, postdocs, students is going down, it’s not just a reduction in some summer salaries. The cap was put in to keep other reductions from being even larger.

    HEP theory has always had a very unhealthy situation of far more phds and postdocs than permanent jobs. This situation isn’t any worse than usual right now, maybe even slightly better, so this doesn’t explain recent cuts. Cuts in grants funding senior tenured people don’t exactly encourage universities to create more permanent positions in this area, so on that end won’t help the job situation.

  13. Anon says:

    Off topic but I hope interesting, this seminar at CERN yesterday:


    The “unexpected results” are not yet published, only on Ting’s slides and seem only to be documented in Turkish, but are potentially very interesting:


    In particular the positron fractions and especially the proton-antiproton ratios.

  14. NotAPhycsist says:

    “Various HEPAP presentations warned physicists about the dangers of public complaints”

    What are these dangers? Can you link to a presentation?

  15. Jonathan Miller says:

    I think that there are a number of factors.

    First, and maybe most importantly, a significant (temporary) cut of support for theory does not have the same cost as a significant (temporary) cut of support for experiment. This is because cutting an experiments funding (beyond some threshold) can cause some, most or all previous funding to that experiment to be wasted and can cost the entire scientific program. Even a radical cut to a theoretical program allows it to be pursued in 2, 5 or 10 years time at low cost. In fact, if the theoretical funding was geared to maintaining the same number of awards for tenure-tracked theorists, there would probably be minimal harm to theoretical programs even with significant (temporary) cuts.

    Second, my experience at University of Maryland is that HEP theorists were much more likely to be supported as students and at postdoc level by the University than HEP experimentalists. This was via teaching assignments, which decreased the time spent on research but still resulted in many more students and postdoc level theorists being supported than would be the case otherwise.

    Finally, I would argue that HEP theory as a whole needs some experimental input right now. It isn’t just string theory. For example, there has been a ton of theoretical and experimental effort put into WIMPs. And due to the recent experimental results in astronomy, collider physics and direct detection, I don’t think extensive further theoretical effort without experimental guidance is well motivated in this sector. Yes, one could argue that the recent AMS results support 1 TeV DM, but they could also support many other interpretations as the results also change our understanding of Cosmic Rays.

    All of these points hopefully point to just a short period of temporary cuts and a bright future. If the third factor continues to grow in significance, then probably the full field (HEP theorists and experimentalists alike) can expect further cutbacks.

  16. Peter Woit says:


    See for instance
    “Bickering scientists get nothing”

    Jonathan Miller,

    Those are all possible factors, but again I don’t see evidence that they are the explanation for recent cuts (or any evidence or reassurance from DOE that this is a temporary situation).

  17. John says:


    Sequestration is supposed to last till FY2021 unless reversed by Congress. The first large cuts that were noticed over two years ago were directly related to the FY 2013 CR deal as this was the first year that would see full implementation of sequestration as agreed to in the BCA of 2011. They shifted funds to cover existing projects from pure HEP theory funds given directly to universities.

    The deal reached last year on November 2nd increased overall DOE funds and even restored some HEP related funds. But once again it was a deal for just a single year and most of the monies were spent on projects and not university grants related to full time positions.

    The reason DOE says it is a temporary situation is because sequestration will eventually go away. And each year the various CR’s might restore some funds that were previously cut. Even now Congress is debating and will vote on a new CR for the rest of this FY. Details are not yet out on DOE related funding so I have not read how it might impact this issue.

    But please note that the entire cause of these cuts were 100% directly related to sequestration and then the shifting of funds within DOE to projects and away from hiring’s at universities and research centers.

    I know it’s Wikipedia but they have a decent explanation of the process. It doesn’t get down to the level you want which is only found in the various budget acts approved by congress. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_budget_sequestration_in_2013

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks John,

    I guess what I’m still not understanding is the “we can’t cut projects, so we’ll cut university grants, especially in theory” justification of why overall cuts are hitting university theory grants much harder than other parts of the HEP program.

  19. ronab says:

    Does all this mean I can look forward to an imminent 30% reduction in pop-sci articles about the multiverse? Cool.

  20. John says:

    Here is the actual budget presentation submitted by the DOE for FY 2016


    Not sure how much this helps but it does show HEP is flat while most other areas are seeking an increase. I can’t answer the “why are they doing this” as no one has explained their motive for why they shift funds around.

  21. jd says:

    I support what John has written above. First read the Wikipedia explanation of sequestration; sequestration does not end with a final budget. Then read and understand the slides of Jim Siegrist, Office of High Energy Physics. At most it takes only a very little reading between the lines to understand what is going on. The letter written by the group of theorists may have been a mistake; to me it smells of bickering. But I am not in HEP so what do I know? I recommend that HEP get its internal politics quietly in order. But then again what do I know?

  22. Anonymous mathematician says:

    I only have anecdotal information, but I have talked to a few graduate students who have decided against careers in HEP because of the lack of new experimental findings at the LHC (nothing to do with string theory; graduate students still seem excited about that).

    I don’t think this is related, because the money started being cut before it was clear that the LHC wasn’t finding anything beyond the Higgs. But it’s probably less of a disaster than it would be if there were exciting new experimental results from the LHC.

  23. Shantanu says:

    Peter, most of the people who have signed this letter are string theorists.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    The slide does say there are “many more” on another page, not reproduced. But that list is dominated by string theorists, few phenomenologists, which is odd.

    The oddest thing about the letter that I noticed was that its first reason given for why the field should not be cut is
    “These cuts come at a time of continued public fascination with particle physics, cosmology, and gravity”.
    It’s unclear why success at getting public attention (often with fairly outrageous hype) is a good argument for federal research dollars. This is also not a great argument to be making to gain support from physicists in other subfields that are doing important work, but don’t enjoy the same public attention, and may not be so happy about that.

  25. Doug McDonald says:

    Peter, the pointers already here do include a vastly larger list of signers.


  26. Peter Woit says:

    Doug McDonald,
    Thanks, I’ve updated the posting with a link to that full version of the letter, as well as to a document justifying the numbers in the letter.

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  28. GoletaBeach says:

    As best as I can tell, there is serious downward budget pressure… John’s explanation that the origin of it might be right… but to document the Office of Science funding, FY1999 appropriations are at: http://science.energy.gov/~/media/budget/pdf/sc-budget-request-to-congress/fy-2000/Cong_Budget_2000_Overview.pdf … can compare with John’s link above, and look at the change in funding levels during this period for the “big 6” portions of the Office of Science mission:

    Basic Energy Sciences …. +52% (that accounts for the effect of inflation)
    Computing …. +140%
    Bio/Env…. -4.7%
    Fusion…. +48%
    High Energy…. -23%
    Nuclear…. +25%

    Overall OS Funding…. +25%.

    I picked year 2000 just because it was a round number for the budget… all years from 1987 are at: http://science.energy.gov/budget/ . But I do believe that HEP has been a big loser for a decade or two… not sure it is the SSC, either.

    My impression is that Basic Energy Sciences does more quantifiable, more easily defended activities. They can say that in FY 2015 8,988 samples were quantified in 93% beam uptime at their 5 facilities, and in FY 2016 they increased to 9,611 samples in 94% beam uptime. The private sector sends samples to Basic Energy Sciences facilities. So, BES have been the big winners for quite some time.

    That is what our government wants these days. HEP theory activities like… our group got deeper insight into the nature of symmetry as it relates to unification of the fundamental forces, well… not easy for bean counting to deal with that, or support it.

    The experimental HEP community has adopted a layer that interfaces to the way the DOE wants to understand things. Seems to me that the theoretical community is off the mark a little… agitation helps, but in the end, when in Rome.

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