American Physicists Scrounge to Stay in 'God Particle' Race

The director of the sole particle physics laboratory in the United States says he has found ways to scrape up about one-third of the money the lab will need to keep pursuing the most sought-after particle in physics, the Higgs boson. Three weeks ago, an independent advisory panel urged officials at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, to run the lab's 25-year-old atom smasher, the Tevatron collider, for an additional 3 years through 2014 so that Fermilab researchers would have a real shot at spotting the Higgs before their European counterparts can nail it. Running the Tevatron past its planned September 2011 shutdown would cost $50 million per year, and today Fermilab Director Pier Oddone announced that lab officials can squeeze about $15 million per year out of the lab's budget, which this year totals $410 million—mainly by slowing down two future experiments.

That leaves $35 million per year that would have to come from elsewhere within the $4.9 billion science portfolio of the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns Fermilab.

Before DOE officials decide whether to go for it, they want the advice of the agency's own High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. The panel will weigh in by the end of October, says Melvyn Shochet, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and chair of the panel. If the proposal is still alive after that, then DOE will enter into negotiations with White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials. Ironically, at this point, the best thing physicists can hope to hear is nothing, Oddone says. A "no" from DOE could come at any time, he says. A "yes" would likely only be announced next February, with the roll-out of President Barack Obama's requested budget for 2012, Oddone says. "These negotiations between DOE and OMB are held very, very tightly," he says.