WASHINGTON, D.C. —
A new report from a government committee chaired by Texas A&M University physicist Robert Tribble has major implications for the future of U.S. nuclear science.
Tribble, director of the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute, oversaw the creation of the report, accepted today (Jan. 29) by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)/National Science Foundation (NSF) Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) and now available online after being transmitted to the two agencies. Tribble served a 3-year term as NSAC chair from 2006-09 and was asked in May 2012 by the current chair, Argonne National Laboratory’s Donald Geesaman, to lead a subcommittee charged with examining the impact of different budgetary scenarios on the nation’s nuclear science program and how to maintain U.S. leadership in nuclear science despite budgetary constraints.
Tribble’s subcommittee is advocating for a 1.6 percent increase per year in the DOE’s current nuclear physics budget of roughly $530 million annually, an amount he says is necessary to prevent the U.S. from losing its competitive edge in the field. Budgets short of that level of funding would result in a major reduction of capabilities in the U.S. program.
“If we don’t invest in the fundamental-discovery sciences, we might not be able to take advantage of the next major technological breakthrough,” said Tribble, after discussing the final report earlier this week with his 21-person committee. “If you look at history, all of our technology now came from discovery science. It was not science funded by anyone to make a product. It was just, ‘why is this happening?’”
Tribble’s advisory panel zeroed in on examining the future of three key national laboratories that are the backbone of the U.S. nuclear physics program: Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC); the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jlab) in Newport News, Va.; and a planned $615 million lab at Michigan State University called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).
Scientists in these labs are conducting research that could potentially be world-changing. At Brookhaven, Tribble notes, researchers are studying a new form of matter that has similar properties to the kind that would have been around roughly 14 billion years ago just an instant after the Big Bang, what’s thought to be the earliest moment in the history of the universe.
Nuclear to the Core
Tribble, a distinguished professor of physics and an international leader in experimental nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics, joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1975. He has served since 2003 as director of the Cyclotron Institute, which represents the core of the university’s nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry program.
The institute, which operates one of only four university-based DOE-funded laboratories equipped with one of only five K500 superconducting cyclotrons worldwide, serves as a major technical and educational resource for both Texas and the U.S. In addition to educating thousands of students in accelerator-based science and technology, it brings in more than $3 million annually in external use and testing by companies such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin that rent time on the cyclotron for their own research projects.
Beyond traditional research and teaching, the institute also plays a vital role in the general university’s K-12 outreach, undergraduate research and teacher-training programs, helping to pave educational pathways and prepare young people for careers in the nuclear industry while building an informed knowledge base with the potential to shape future nuclear policy.
Committed to Serve
At most American universities, professors are tasked with a trio of primary duties: teaching, research and service. Although the rigors of the first two often get the most attention, faculty members quietly and routinely execute the third duty without any extra pay nor fanfare.
At Texas A&M, Tribble is a perfect example. His teaching and research credentials are exemplary — he has been recognized with distinguished achievement awards in both respective areas and was appointed a distinguished professor, the university’s highest academic rank, in 2009 — but he also has embraced service.
In addition to his recent work on the NSAC subcommittee, he has served on various other boards and committees, including a similar NSAC subcommittee in 2005. He currently is chair of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics Working Group 9, an international committee of laboratory directors. And he was the principal author of the 2007 Long Range Plan, which examined the future of U.S. nuclear science.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it would make an impact on the field that I’m researching,” Tribble said. “We have some problems, and we need to try to find some solutions. Without spending time to do that, it’s not going to happen.”
Donald Geesaman, current NSAC chair and a former director of the physics division at Argonne National Laboratory, said Tribble’s expertise made him a natural fit to lead both the group and the overall task.
“Bob Tribble’s name is the one that leapt to everyone’s mind to chair this subcommittee to deal with the implementation of the 2007 NSAC Long Range under adverse budget conditions,” Geesaman said. “First, he had led an NSAC subcommittee in 2005 responding to a similar charge, and his work then was widely applauded. Second, he was the NSAC chair during the 2007 Long Range Plan and was in a unique position to understand exactly what was in the plan. Finally, his peers had elected him chair of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society, visible recognition of his high standing and leadership in the community. We were fortunate that once again he was willing to serve.”
Resources and Reference
Click here to read a recent USA TODAY article featuring helpful background and links.
Click here to read a Jefferson Lab summary of Tribble’s experiences as NSAC chair.
Learn more about the Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute.
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