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Two American Physics Labs Are Vying for a Billion-Dollar Particle Accelerator

Brookhaven, New York and Newport News, Virginia both want the new Electron Ion Collider, but scientists are not prepared for a fight.

Two labs are vying for government funding to host a billion-dollar atom smasher, and the battle is getting political.

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Lab in Brookhaven, New York lies in a circular underground tunnel over two miles in circumference. Along the tunnel sits billions of dollars in pipes and magnets, tangled colored wires, microchips, and computers housed in concrete lined, house-sized sheds. Inside the tunnels are two intersecting rings that crash particles together.

Meanwhile, 500 miles away in Newport News, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) hosts a similarly huge device—a half-mile wide particle race track of cold metal pipes that slams tiny electrons against stationary targets. The targets sit at the track's finish line, a heap of erector-set looking instrumentation inside a trio of fifty- to one hundred-foot-tall silos.

Only one of these labs will receive government funding for a modification that will turn their experiment into the most important facility for the future of American nuclear physics, the Electron Ion Collider (EIC).

High energy physics machines are so large and expensive that their labs must compete for money from their primary patron, the DOE

The EIC is like a microscope designed to look at atomic nuclei and their constituent parts, protons and neutrons. In a microscope, light bounces off of a sample, like a blood cell, and then enters the human eye, which in turn sends information on the cell's structure to the brain. Similarly, the EIC bounces beams of electrons against its sample, protons or atomic nuclei, causing the electrons to scatter and the protons to blow to pieces. In this case, the microscope is the mile-wide apparatus, and the eye is a building-sized detector hooked up to the experiment's brain, a network of supercomputers.

As much as we hear about these protons and neutrons, scientists still know very little about them, said Berndt Mueller, associate laboratory director for nuclear and particle physics at Brookhaven.

The Department of Energy is expected to give $1 billion in installments to either Brookhaven National Lab or 1.5 billion dollars to JLab to build the EIC. That should begin in 2022 or 2023, said Abhay Deshpande, a physicist at Stony Brook University, who is working on plans for the collider.

Hungry for the jobs and economic boost the funding could bring, politicians in Brookhaven and Newport News have begun to prepare their towns by securing space and further funding.

Some particle physicists feel political competition so early in the machine's design process will cloud the main scientific goal. "The scientific community is united behind the project," and it is too early for the EIC to become the subject of a political battle, said Deshpande.

It's ironic, because each lab currently has half the instrumentation necessary. Brookhaven's RHIC currently collides ions in the form of atomic nuclei or protons, and could supply to the "I" half of the EIC. If BNL received the funding, it'd just need to retrofit RHIC with an electron beam, said Mueller. Meanwhile, JLab's CEBAF experiment in Newport News has the "Es," its electron beam, and would just need another beam for the ions, says Robert McKeown, deputy director of science at JLab.

If the two labs could combine their existing experiments, they'd have one EIC. Unfortunately, you can't really move gargantuan underground facilities.

The Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC or STAR detector at Brookhaven National Lab in New York. Photo courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

The field of particle physics has been rife with competition since 1932 when Ernest Lawrence ran the first cyclotron, a simple particle accelerator, at the University of California, Berkeley. Other labs have taken turns one-upping Lawrence's cyclotron until today, when high energy physics machines are so large and expensive that their labs must compete for money from their primary patron, the DOE.

The DOE encourages this competition to make the best use of the government money, said Bruce Hevly, associate professor of the history of science at the University of Washington. But inevitably, these competitions between scientists gave way to fights between politicians and local economic interests, since the DOE runs on a limited budget.

For example, back in 1983, James McCarthy, a University of Virginia professor, led JLab in a politically-driven funding battle against Fermilab in Illinois to build CEBAF, the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility. His goal was to bring scientists' brains and money to the American Southeast.

But today, with a machine as important as the EIC, particle physicists around the world are working on both BNL and JLab's proposals together, rather than working in silos. That way, when the DOE makes its final decision, both experimental proposals will contain everything the future users of the experiment want to study. So while each lab's administrators may be seeking the prestige of an important experiment, the experiment's actual users are often not affiliated with either lab and will continue doing their research regardless of which site hosts the EIC. Physicists would not favor a proposal unless "one of the groups thinks that their favorite topic will not be covered by the other machine," said Deshpande.

And with only a day's drive between Brookhaven and Newport News, the labs are close enough that the physical location is nearly irrelevant to physicists used to jetsetting around the world. "[Traveling] four hours between the two labs is no big deal," said Deshpande. "High energy physicists are used to it."

The experiment's location seems most important to local politicians. In Newport News, legislators have begun securing land for JLab and are planning to excite the community with public particle physics education sessions. "We're trying to appeal to the workforce of the future," said Florence Kingston, the director of Newport News' Department of Development. Not only do physics jobs have higher wages, she says, but she hopes the EIC at JLab will attract smarter people to the area and juice the local economy.

Meanwhile, out on Long Island, Brookhaven's boosters hail from across party lines. Republican Ed Romaine, the Brookhaven Town Supervisor, has worked closely with Democrat Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Executive, to lobby New York State officials on behalf of the experiment.

"This is not a political thing," said Romaine. "But we work for common purposes and common cause to advance the lives and benefit of the folks on Long Island."

Politics aside, the winning lab will not begin building the collider for seven or eight years, according to Deshpande. With a final outcome so far away, it is not clear what tone the competition between JLab and BNL will ultimately take.

Physicists hope that the science won't be lost in the political squabble, however. For now, "I would like to see the community come together and keep the focus on the science," said Deshpande.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that the Department of Energy grant will be given in installments and not in one lump sum.