What's good for BNL is good for America

World-class scientists rely on equipment at Brookhaven National Lab, but a crucial upgrade faces major hurdles

The following editorial appeared in Newsday, December 11, 2005.

The stunning complexity of the Big Machines at Brookhaven National Laboratory is simplicity itself, compared to the tangle of politics and budgets that could grind it all to a halt.

This is not just a pivotal moment for the lab, but for the region, the state, and the nation's ability to compete scientifically. The lab is set to begin conceptual design of a third-generation machine that will lead the globe in producing brilliant X-rays to peer into the tiniest spaces in our world and enable major advances in such fields as medicine, computers and energy. Nothing equal to the proposed new national synchrotron light source (its friends call it NSLS-II) is in construction or even in design anywhere else on the planet. America must have NSLS-II to remain competitive, and the lab must have it located here to stay alive.

Promise and peril

But a mysterious turn in the federal budget for fiscal 2006 has temporarily shut the lab's relativistic heavy ion collider (RHIC, as in Rick), a whiz-bang nuclear physics device, raising serious concerns about the lab's future. It's hardly the first budget crunch for Brookhaven, but this is a unique intersection of promise and peril, leaving scientists at the lab, and its users, both excited and nervous.

What Killed Beethoven?

Before we get into the dense politics, a few words on what these machines can do: This past week, Newsday and others reported on scientists finding that Ludwig van Beethoven died of lead poisoning. The work on that discovery took place on the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, a third-generation machine that produces beams more brilliant than those at Brookhaven's current national synchrotron light source, which is a second-generation machine.

The scientist who brought that study to Argonne, Bill Walsh, founder of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Illinois, searched the globe for the facility best suited to examine the composer's hairs without destroying them. He found it at Argonne, 20 minutes from his home, and worked with an Argonne scientist, Ken Kemner, who lives close by.

The hair and skull fragment work took only hours at Argonne. Kemner, who used the Brookhaven light source earlier in his career, says the work could have been done here, but not nearly as fast. Brookhaven's machine is a workhorse, but in years ahead, Argonne's photon source - and, worse, new facilities already on line and soon to open in Europe and Asia - will eclipse this one.

If scientists don't believe that NSLS-II is on the way to Brookhaven, they will begin to use machines elsewhere that are better than the lab's current one. That's grim news for the lab and for scientists in this region, whose research is better done close to home - such as Roderick MacKinnon at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, a Nobel laureate who works at Brookhaven regularly.

Once Walsh discovered the power of Argonne's photon source, he began turning its brilliant light on questions his center cares about most: looking deeply into the brain for answers to the tragedies of Alzheimer's and autism. It's great that he can do it close to home, but if Brookhaven builds a machine that lets him do it better, he'd have to fly here.

10,000 times brighter

The current Brookhaven light source was the first of its kind when it opened in 1982. It has more than 2,300 users, including such huge companies as IBM and ExxonMobil. But NSLS-II will offer light more than 10,000 times as bright.

It will enable scientists to focus down to the level of a nanometer, a billionth of a meter. So it's no accident that the lab proposes to build NSLS-II next to its Center for Functional Nanomaterials, now under construction. In making its pitch to the Department of Energy to site the new machine here, Brookhaven argues that the two facilities are inseparable. The lab is right.

The department has recently decided that NSLS-II is necessary for its broad mission of support to science, but it is a long way from deciding where it will go. If DOE opts to put it elsewhere, that would solve the national competitiveness problem, but it would be a disaster for the lab, Long Island, and scientists at Northeast businesses and universities. (One reason for siting it here is that the Northeast has a heavier cluster of universities and graduate programs than the nation's three other quadrants.)

At the local level, the next step is for Brookhaven to spend about 10 months on the conceptual design, which will give a better idea of the machine's cost, estimated at $600 million to $800 million. The lab has people to do that, but not enough money. It has $1 million available, but the Department of Energy must scrounge up another $6 million.

The budget hurdle

As conceptual design proceeds, the other major arena is the fiscal 2007 budget, which the White House will propose early in 2006. If NSLS-II is to open in 2013, the budget must contain funding for project engineering and design, the next phase after conceptual design. Some say the amount must be $45 million; others say $30 million is enough. Whatever the amount, the key is to get NSLS-II money in the 2007 budget.

This is not a mission only for the lab's director, Praveen Chaudhari, or for Steve Dierker, who runs the current light source and leads the lab's drive for NSLS-II. It's an all-hands-on-deck task.

A group of scientists who use Brookhaven's light source, coordinated by the New York Structural Biology Center and calling itself the Committee for NSLS-II, has worked to get New York's congressional delegation to sign a letter to the Office of Management and Budget. Almost every member of the delegation has signed. A major player in that is an upstate powerhouse, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-New Hartford), chairman of the House Science Committee and a good friend of the lab.

Bipartisanship is the way to go

Boehlert's help is crucial. The lab has staunch support from both New York senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district includes the lab. But Republicans control Congress. So this fight must be bipartisan. That's why Bishop worked with Chaudhari to get Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio), a key appropriations subcommittee chairman, to tour the lab.

In that spirit, there's a big role for Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. States such as Illinois and Tennessee have supported the future of their labs by spending money to build ancillary facilities. So the Brookhaven lab wants the state to put up $30 million to construct the Joint Photon Sciences Institute, where users of NSLS-II can develop better ways of using it. Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Stony Brook University, part of the consortium that runs the lab, are urging Pataki to write to DOE. So is the Long Island Association. Next, we hope: a line in the State of the State address, and money in the state budget.

But the big bump in the road is the 2006 federal budget. The White House cut $18 million from the relativistic heavy ion collider. Bishop, Schumer and Clinton helped get the House and Senate to put it back in, but then conferees took it out. Together with higher power costs, that sharply cut RHIC's operating time. The lab needs RHIC at full tilt, NSLS-II and the new nanocenter to remain viable.

So, if Brookhaven is to be at the cutting edge, and if America is to stay competitive, this is a moment of truth.

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.


2005-10473  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom