Dept. of Energy Support for Particle Theory: A “Calamity”

One of the nice things that governments do is support basic scientific research — work that might help us better understand how the world works, but doesn’t have any direct technological or economic application. Particle physics and cosmology are great examples. In the U.S., much of the funding for these fields comes from the Office of High Energy Physics within the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE).

Now that support is crumbling — drastically. In the last couple of years, the DOE has radically changed how it carries out reviews of different university theory groups, to decide how much grant support each will get. All for ostensibly good reasons — leveling the playing field and all that. But, without much fanfare, the actual result has been a significant drop in funding for almost every major theory group in the country.

Laurence Yaffe of the University of Washington, a respected particle and nuclear theorist, just released an analysis he informally carried out after serving a temporary assignment at the DOE. Here is his abstract (emphasis mine):

Impacts of Recent Comparative Review Cycles on DOE-funded High Energy Theory
L.G. Yaffe, University of Washington
February 19, 2014

A summary is presented of data obtained from a grass-roots effort to understand the effects of the FY13 and FY14 comparative review cycles on the DOE-funded portion of the US high energy theory community and, in particular, on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are beginning their careers. For a sample comprised of nearly all of the larger groups undergoing comparative review, total funding declined by an average of 23%, with numerous major groups receiving reductions in the 30–55% range. Funding available for postdoc or graduate student support declined over 30%, with many reductions in the 40–65% range. The total number of postdoc positions in this large sample of theory groups is declining by over 40%. The impacts on young researchers raise grave concerns regarding continued U.S. leadership in high energy theory.

A 20% cut in funding in one year is kind of a big deal. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two of them; overall funding changes for all the different groups:


and changes specifically in support for graduate students and postdocs:


Obviously this is unsustainable, unless as a society we make the decision that particle physics just isn’t worth doing. But hopefully things can be rectified at least a bit, to restore some of that money. Everyone I know is bemoaning the cuts, complaining that they have been turning away prospective grad students and postdocs more than ever before. I’m not necessarily against decreasing the number of postdocs (as opposed to grad students); the pipeline has to narrow somewhere, and there’s a sensible argument to be made to do it at that point. But we should do it deliberately and after thinking and talking about it, not as the haphazard result of some new bureaucratic procedures. It would be a shame to destroy our future prospects in this centrally important area of science.

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31 Responses to Dept. of Energy Support for Particle Theory: A “Calamity”

  1. Hi Sean, Could you please elaborate on reducing postdocs?

  2. Joan Hendricks says:

    This is a continuing disaster. We are going down a long slippery slope from being tops in innovation and research.

    What can we do? I’m certainly willing to write my Congressman if that would help (which I doubt since he is generally liked by the Tea Party).

  3. Zephir says:

    Department of Energy should support the research of cold fusion and magnetic motors, i.e. energy technologies – not some colliders.

  4. Jay Benesch says:

    More bad news: discusses the appropriations bill passed Jan. 17. The change requiring that DOE obligate in full any grant with a total cost of $1M or less will reduce the number of grants for a three to five year period. This is more likely to affect theory grants than experimental ones. Speculation: some of the earlier cuts might have been in anticipation of this change in law.

  5. Steve Reilly says:

    If you’re going to argue for more taxpayer money, surely you should be pointing out exactly why the extra money would be better used on physics than on any other government program, or why it’s better than just letting taxpayers keep their money. Simply pointing out that there have been changes doesn’t explain why anyone should oppose those changes.

  6. AI says:

    Let’s see, during the last decade 3000 hep-th papers a year were posted to the arxiv (almost twice as much if you count cross-posts). With hardly any new high energy experiments on the horizon it seems like a major overkill. Technology and economy have a lot of catching up before further experiments are feasible and so it makes more sense to reallocate the talent and funding to help with that goal instead of wasting it on empty speculations.

  7. David says:

    Is the total reduced, or just the amount going to the current largest groups? The survey provided doesn’t address that issue at all, and seems to me that more data (different data) is needed. If the changes level the playing field with a constant total, that would make for more departments of smaller groups, and could support a consistent number of trainees. Inadequate data, conclusions extending too far from empirical support.

  8. vmarko says:

    I’d say it’s high time to move the majority of hep-th research to China. 😉

    Best, 🙂

  9. Bob says:

    @David: if you look at the plots, you’ll see that everything is to the left of zero. Most groups have been cut, with a few exceptional ones not getting cut. There aren’t any that are getting more funding.

  10. Janne says:

    A lot of people in the web/blog community of scientists are complaining about overproduction of PhDs and “exploitation” of post-docs without any realistic long-term career path in the academic world.

    Maybe the DoE has realised this and is acting to correct this perceived issue. So this might be a good thing…?

  11. “Hi Sean, Could you please elaborate on reducing postdocs?

    Allow me. On average, each academic who has students will have one student who in turn will become an academic who will have students. (If this isn’t immediately obvious to you, then you might be as surprised as Eisenhower was on learning that fully half of US citizens are below average in intelligence.) Thus, most students, and not even most post-docs, will go on to a permanent academic position. Not even most of them who want such a position. For a given amount of money (changing the total amount of money is a different question), wouldn’t it make more sense to have more academics with permanent jobs and fewer with temporary jobs? The current situation has most of the work done by people with insecure jobs. (If that were the most efficient way, then business and industry would do things that way, but in business and industry, the rule is that one becomes permanent after, say, 6 months probationary time, even if one hasn’t worked in the field before.) Yes, it means more long-term funding commitment, but there are some questions which can’t be answered via a series of short-term projects, especially with different people at each stage.

  12. don says:

    What do you expect when mainstream physics can’t even bring itself to understand ’empty’ space has mass and is what waves in a double slit experiment?

    How long do you expect to get funding for nonsense like ‘many worlds’?

  13. Brett says:

    This is the reason why Bill Nye was correct in doing the creationism debate that he did. So many scientists gave him hell about it, but funding cuts are the result. It should be obvious by this point, American politicians are complete idiots. You can shun Michio Kaku for a few things, but he also understands this. In 2011 he made the argument that scientists have been spoiled ever since WWII. All you had to do to get funding was mention the Russians or, to a much lesser extent, the Chinese and you would get your funding. Now, you have to explain it to a bunch of morons who think that if god wanted us to have technology, he would start a war (don’t get me started on the absence of logic) so that we would keep funding various research projects.

    Yes, it’s a lot harder now; rational people, known as scientists, have to go out there and dispel the idea that they are a bunch of atheists who want to burn bibles and steal money. By not debating the crazies, you are allowing them to continue their smear campaign against science. All you have to do is send out maybe 10 well known scientists to debate 10 well known crazies and do what Bill Nye did; prove that these people are insane by just sitting there and letting them talk without loosing your cool. Show them that scientists are the complete opposite of what they claim we are. We are the parents and they are the children, but we’ve become some tired parents. When asked “what would make you change your mind”, Bill Nye’s reply was, “evidence”. Jon Hamm’s reply was “nothing”. There you go. You can get back to work for another 50 years. But the fact that Bill Nye is more recognized as a tv personality than a “full blown scientist” lessens the extent of that victory.

  14. David says:

    @Bob (9:52): The graph shows the jobs at the centers which were surveyed. Only large centers were surveyed. If money is being moved from large centers to small centers, the survey would not have identified this. The conclusions (that there are fewer overall jobs) may be right, but those conclusions are not based on the data shown here.

  15. Brett says:

    Steve Reilly, the amount of money spent on government research projects involving physics is a drop in the barrel. You could cut the percentage of funding that the government gives to each selected research program and you would get back 25 cents. Hopefully they directly deposit it into your account because the paper for the check, envelope, and stamp would cause your taxes to go back up.

  16. John Duffield says:

    Wise up guys. The bottom line is that the public and politicians are fed up with paying a lot of money for not much perceived benefit. Is the fabulous Higgs boson, which contradicts E=mc² by the way, going to solve our energy problems? No. When people hear physicists or cosmologists pontificate about the mathematical universe or the multiverse, or speculative hypotheses like SUSY that have gone nowhere in decades, they say “Why are we paying these useless irrelevant ignorant arrogant dilettantes to have a life of ease?” So funding gets cut. Only the guy pontificating about the multiverse is still there, whilst the PhDs are not. So Sean, when you say we should retire falsifiability, when you talk about the evil twin universe, when you’re being provocative to promote your career, you’re hammering nails into other people’s coffins. That might suit you now, but one day they’re going to come for you.

  17. Thomas Larsson says:

    Reduced funding is a natural consequence of reduced productivity. As resource depletion marches on, things will deteriorate.

    A quantitative example: No Nobel prize has been awarded for any hep-th discovery made after 1973 (the Higgs mechanism was discovered in 1964).If the Nobel committee has not found any hep-th work worth awarding, by its own century-old criteria, why should the DOE act differently?

  18. Is there any evidence that physics departments are reducing graduate student intake because of both reduced funding and fewer jobs? Although I don’t have hard data I have heard that this is happening in a few chemistry and biology departments.

  19. Ted Bunn says:

    One of the stated goals of the revised process was to decrease “the effects of historical inertia on funding levels for different groups,” which seems to me to mean that historically large groups would get smaller — precisely as seen. Notably absent from this report is any information on the total level of funding for high-energy theory. In the absence of this, I don’t see how the conclusion of a “calamity” is drawn.

  20. John Conway says:

    It’s not just theory groups – the groups working in the area of experimental collider physics (on the LHC primarily) have also seen large drops in funding. The stated reason is so that the DOE can work within a more or less fixed budget, and in the coming years carve out funds for “projects” which is code for construction of large new facilities, including LBNE (the long baseline neutrino experiment), LSST (the large survey telescope), and others. But this change in DOE policy away from high energy theory and collider experiments has been made well in advance of the upcoming reports from P5, the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, which reports to HEPAP, the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, which is the sole official organization representing the high energy physics community to the DOE.

    Is the DOE policy the “right” one? Squeeze on the US involvement in the LHC experiments and on the theory groups to make room for new US-based projects? All I know is that this is in fact the policy and it is being implemented, well in advance of community input.

  21. big J says:

    “One of the nice things that governments do is support basic scientific research — work that might help us better understand how the world works, but doesn’t have any direct technological or economic application. Particle physics and cosmology are great examples.”

    Well it seems that PP and C are not such examples anymore. Who is to blame ? Think about it. Hmmm ?

  22. I can’t comment until I see the breakdown of rejected papers. Maybe there is a policy to favour certain types of papers and not others, and if so it would be good to know the direction they are heading, if any.

  23. One thing to note is that the EEC has funded the Blue Brain Project’s speculation into replicating a brain and its functions to the tune of one billion euros over 10 years. What have they done with it? Anyone know about it? A site called Frontiers charges for their Epapers and Ebooks, so the funding is not going there. Otherwise I just read snippets about their work.

    My point is that there is no guarantee massive funding will break open a closed shop and make it accessible or understandable to the public footing the bill. Much more attention needs to be paid generally to directly serving the public by regular plain language updates. Make it impossible for them to refuse funding by taking more care in explaining the relevance of the research to the public and the realistic expectations that arise from it. Blue Brain got there nevertheless – but you will need to ask them their secret.

  24. JoAnne Hewett says:


    I am the department head of the theory group at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Larry has written an interesting piece, and he has nailed a serious problem: funding for theory is decreasing, year after year, in order to divert more money to the project line. This is also true for the experimental research lines, but, in principle, they can recoup some (but not all) of the monies from the project lines.

    The real problem is decreasing monies for science. The DOE theory research line was cut by ~5% in FY14, after a cut in FY13, after a cut in FY12…. This is bound to result in a decrease in postdoc and student positions, and senior faculty salaries. This decrease in funding is combined with a change in the funding process for the DOE, namely the institution of comparative reviews. A perfect storm! The comparative review process is similar to what has been done at the NSF for years. The labs have undergone comparative reviews since 2008, and the universities started in 2012. Personally, I think this is a very fair way to allocate ever decreasing funds. Rather than let historical precedence be the guide, what matters most now is what a researcher actually does. The most productive researchers are being rewarded and whatever fat there was is now out of the system. (I have to say that I was brought up to think that what I actually did is what matters, so I like the new system.)

    Nonetheless, the numbers and graphs in Larry’s paper are misleading. First, only some fraction of the groups responded – generally it’s the folks that wish to complain that respond. Second, the DOE instituted salary caps ($15k/month) for summer salary payments and this was not factored into his graphs depicting the decrease in funding. I know of some groups whose cuts were solely from the caps. (It’s worth noting that lab scientists are in general paid less than their university counterparts and few of us would hit this cap.) Third, the weak FY13 postdoc hiring cycle is a direct result of the FY12 (and not FY13) comparative reviews due to the timing of the annual hiring cycle. Fourth, the picture at the labs is not as rosy as Larry paints. Lab groups have been cut every year, in sync with the overall theory budget. After the last lab comparative review, several senior scientists with lab “tenure” were fired. Postdoc positions were reduced. At SLAC we have graduate students from Stanford, and the number of student positions we could afford was cut in half.

    Lastly, I would like to stress that the single worst thing the theory community could do is to fight amongst itself. We could divide ourselves up many different ways: lab vs university, formal vs phenomenological, old vs young, red-headed women who wear blue-jeans on Tuesdays vs everyone else….and this hurts us greatly. Divide and conquer is the famous phrase and that is appropriate here. If half of the community loses its funding, it goes to projects, not the other theory half. We must stick together and fight for better funding for a world-leading theory program.

    -JoAnne Hewett

  25. ” the DOE instituted salary caps ($15k/month) for summer salary payments and this was not factored into his graphs depicting the decrease in funding. I know of some groups whose cuts were solely from the caps. (It’s worth noting that lab scientists are in general paid less than their university counterparts and few of us would hit this cap.) “

    Anyone doing scientific research who makes $15k per month should not be complaining. 😐