Panel Wants U.S. to Chase 'God Particle'—If There's Money

ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND—Keep going. That's the advice today from a federal advisory panel to government officials responsible for running the last U.S. atom smasher. But the panel's caveat—only if you get more money—means there's a good chance the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) will have to close next fall.

The ad hoc Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) urged officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) to keep running the collider through 2014 instead of shutting it down in September 2011 as planned. The three extra years of data-taking would give Fermilab physicists a shot at spotting the Higgs boson before it's nailed by Europe's more-powerful Large Hadron Collider, which will shut down for 15 months in 2012 for repairs.

The search for the Higgs "is the most exciting issue in all of physics," Charles Baltay, a physicist at Yale University and chair of P5, told members of the federal High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), which immediately adopted P5's report at its meeting here. "We should seize the opportunity."

There's a catch, however. To keep running the Tevatron, DOE would have to add $35 million to its $810 million high-energy physics budget. That's the difference between the $50 million per year it would cost to keep the collider going and the $15 million per year that Fermilab Director Pier Oddone estimates that he can squeeze from the lab's current $410 million budget by delaying other experiments. P5 did not identify other possible cuts in DOE's high-energy physics program and reiterated that DOE should not sacrifice other projects in particle physics, at Fermilab and elsewhere, to run the Tevatron. "We didn't see anything we could throw away or give up," Baltay says.

In fact, when asked by a HEPAP member if that meant the Tevatron should not run if no new money is found, Baltay answered, "Yes, I think that is the intention."

Still, the recommendation is about the best that Fermilab researchers could realistically hope for. "It's very much aligned with what I concluded it would take" to keep the Tevatron going, Oddone says. "I think we're going to have to try" to find the money, says William Brinkman, director of DOE's Office of Science in Washington, D.C. But he added, "Congress is in a conservative mode when it comes to funding, so it's not going to be easy."

Some physicists worry that Congress might order DOE to run the Tevatron beyond 2011 but not give the department any extra money to do so. "For me, it's not worth the risk to the rest of the program," says Daniel Akerib, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the only one of the 15 members of HEPAP to vote against adopting P5's advice.

Melvyn Shochet, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and chair of HEPAP, agrees that's a risk and says that's why P5's report emphasized the need for extra cash. "We don't want an unfunded mandate," Shochet says. "We want a funded mandate—or no mandate at all."

Now that P5 and HEPAP have weighed in, the next step is up to the Obama Administration. DOE, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the White House Office of Management and Budget will discuss the request in the context of DOE's budget request for 2012, due out next February.