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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Under review

It has been a very busy couple of weeks for particle physics, as has been chronicled here in Quantum Diaries — new results in the Higgs search (as Alain Blondel, the summary speaker at the Moriond conference said, “Too soon to claim evidence, but who would bet against Higgs boson at 125 GeV?”),
the first definitive non-zero measurement of the neutrino mixing parameter theta-13, and today’s news that the ICARUS experiment, in the same underground lab as OPERA, has measured the speed of neutrinos and found it to be consistent with the speed of light (as many would say, “Too soon to claim an error, but who would bet against Einstein at 3 x 10^8 m/s?”). Meanwhile, the first beams of the year are now circulating in the LHC, and we are anticipating a very exciting year.

However, I have come here today to discuss something much more boring, which is money. (Sorry about that, but my job here is to write about life in particle physics; this is a piece of it.) All of the great science that the LHC is bringing to you doesn’t come for free, of course — in fact, it is funded by you, the taxpayer. In the United States, research in particle physics is supported predominantly by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, who are also the sponsors of the US LHC blog that you are reading right now. Much of the funding goes into grants to research groups at individual universities, which in turn goes to support the hardworking graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who are running the experiment and analyzing the data, and who will be the future leaders of science and technology in our country. But a lot of it goes into behind the scenes stuff — helping to pay our share for the operations of the experiments, funds for research and development and purchasing equipment for detector upgrades, and the deployment and operation of the computing resources needed to analyze the data that comes out. This is referred to as the “operations program”, and for US CMS, this comes to about $38M/year — not much at all in the grand scheme of the entire multi-trillion dollar federal budget, but a noticeable bit of the budget for particle physics in the US. I’m the deputy leader of US CMS software and computing, so it is part of my job to make sure that the program is executed well.

It is only proper that there is some oversight and review of the operations program. The program managers interact regularly with our contacts at the funding agencies, and with all of the US CMS physicists who depend on and benefit from the program. But we also have an annual formal external review. This year’s review was held last week at sunny SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. While the review is coordinated by program officers at the funding agencies, it is conducted by our peers — experienced particle physicists (and a few physicists from other fields) who have had to run similar programs themselves. They know the hard questions to ask that will probe whether we are really providing value to researchers and whether the science we are doing is truly worth the investment. Getting their outside perspective is very useful for us, as it helps us evaluate our own work from a different angle.

If I may say so, these reviews are pretty intense. We start getting ready for them a couple of months in advance, as we pull together documentation that demonstrates our achievements of the past year, and how we have implemented recommendations from previous reviews. We are often given specific questions about how we would allocate resources for the future. We also rehearse the presentations that we are going to give for our collaborators, who help us make sure that what we say is going to make sense to outsiders. The review itself starts with a series of presentations from us about what we are doing. Then the review panel breaks into subcommittees that focus on different aspects of the program, and we address some issues in more details. At the end of the working day, the panel gets back together and poses a set of questions for us to respond to about topics that they thought needed more consideration. After a nice dinner where we try not to think of the task ahead of us, the US CMS team reconvenes to come up with written answers to the questions. This year I stayed up until 1 AM to finish my part, while other colleagues were up later. Then we all got back together at 6 AM to check things over in advance of our presentation to the panel at 8 AM. Whew!

Then the panel takes a few more hours to synthesize what they learned from us, and to present a closeout report. I’m happy to say that US CMS came out quite well this year. We were praised for our contributions to the fabulous results that came out of the LHC in the past year, and for how we are supporting our colleagues in pursuing the science. It’s always a relief to get through this, but also to know that we are doing right by our collaborators and by you, the people who are generously making our work possible.

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