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Refilling the Physicist Pool

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BUFFALO, N.Y., July 5, 2007 -- At the mention of the word "outsourcing," most people probably think of manufacturing, not theoretical physics. But the scientists who develop theoretical predictions for high-energy particle physics experiments say outsourcing in their field has allowed the US to lag behind in high-profile, global science.

"This is the wrong kind of outsourcing," said Ulrich Baur, PhD, a professor of physics at the University at Buffalo (UB) College of Arts and Sciences and a co-founder of the Large Hadron Collider-Theory Initiative (LHC-TI), a consortium of theoretical physicists. Their goal is to train more US graduate students in theoretical high-energy particle physics calculations relevant to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator being built near Geneva, Switzerland.

"We are behind the Europeans, and we believe very strongly that we shouldn't just leave this work to the Europeans," Baur said in a UB statement.

After several years of grassroots organizing among theoretical physicists, the group is celebrating the awarding of the first LHC Theory Graduate Fellowship Awards, funded by the National Science Foundation and administered by Johns Hopkins University. Baur, a co-principal investigator on the program, said this prestigious fellowship structure will cultivate and support young theoretical physicists who will then go on to fill faculty positions at American universities.

The awards, he said, will begin to build up the pool of talent that began to decline following a 1993 congressional decision not to build the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Waxahachie, Texas.

"The demise of the SSC was a blow to high-energy physics in the US," says Baur, who was an SSC Fellow in 1991 along with some of his colleagues on the LHC Theory Initiative. "It may have contributed to this decline in that theorists decided to work on more speculative topics, such as string theory."

Funding in the US for particle physics as a whole and theoretical particle physics in particular has declined significantly over the past 15 years, Baur said. In addition, physics departments in US universities tend to hire faculty members who develop innovative ideas, whereas in Europe, the physics culture puts equal emphasis on novel research and solid calculations that help advance the field as a whole. But with the Large Hadron Collider -- the world's largest particle accelerator -- coming online in the next year or sooner, Baur said, the US cannot afford to fall behind.

"With the potential of the LHC for making breakthrough discoveries, the US cannot afford not to play a leadership role in LHC-related theory," Baur and Lynne Orr, PhD, a physics professor at the University of Rochester, warned in a 2005 memo to fellow theorists.

Baur, Orr and others in their field had recognized that the contributions of American scientists in the field of LHC-related, high-energy physics theory were insufficient because there simply were not enough young theoretical physicists pursuing these calculations.

"In order for the LHC to properly deliver results, there is a strong need for accurate theoretical predictions about the experiments that will be done there," said Baur. "While the UA has been very strongly involved in building detectors for experimental efforts, there hasn't been a whole lot of work going on with the theory side."

The LHC, a $4 billion accelerator, will demand a groundswell of new theoretical predictions. That's because it will be capable of exploring a new energy domain almost an order of magnitude above the energy scale accessible with currently available accelerators, Baur said.

In 2005, he and Orr began what they call a "community-driven process" to draw attention to the need to train more theoretical physicists in the US with town meetings held at scientific conferences around the nation.

"We tried to rally the field," said Baur.

This year, the efforts of the group paid off with the establishment by NSF of the Large Hadron Collider Theory Initiative. Jonathan A. Bagger, PhF, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, is principal investigator on the grant; Baur, Orr and R. Sekhar Chivukula, PhD, at Michigan State University, are co-investigators.

In April, the nationally competitive program announced its first awards of $40,000 each to two theoretical physics students to underwrite their research, travel and computing needs. Four additional graduate students received $3000 travel awards.

Beginning next year, the LHC Theory Initiative plans to award $150,000 postdoctoral grants to pursue LHC-related research and to build a network of LHC-related theorists in the US.

"We want to create a strong community of young physicists," Baur said.

For more information on the LHC Theory Initiative, visit:
Jul 2007
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