APS News

February 2011 (Volume 20, Number 2)

Kovar Reflects on State of High Energy Physics, and the Road Ahead

By Michael Lucibella

Kovar interview image web

Dennis Kovar
In December, Dennis Kovar retired as the Associate Director of Science for High Energy Physics in the Department of Energy, a position he assumed in October, 2007. He took the time to talk to APS News, reflecting on twenty years of work in the Department of Energy and the future of high energy physics.

Q: How would you describe your role in the Office of High Energy Physics in the Department of Energy?

A: The job of our office is to identify the scientific opportunities for the field, to put together a strategic plan, and then to try to implement that plan in a way that maintains a leadership role for the United States in particle physics and ensures that we are at the scientific frontiers. We have to have the research capabilities–both research facilities and a research community–to play that leadership role.

A very important part is identifying the scientific opportunities and priorities. We do that by getting guidance from the scientific community. Our primary guidance comes from the HEPAP (High Energy Physics Advisory Panel). In areas of overlap in astrophysics and astronomy, there is the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), also a federal advisory committee, of which DOE and NSF and NASA are sponsors. HEPAP is jointly chartered by DOE and NSF. DOE works very closely with NSF in order to generate a combined program that will make the US a leader in this field.

Q: What can you point to as your biggest accomplishment so far at the Office of High Energy Physics?

A: Before I came into this office, the strategic plan for the US in this field had been to implement a next generation lepton collider, the ILC (International Linear Collider), as rapidly as possible. About the time I came in, it became clear that the planned LHC program at CERN was slipping; it was important to see what was found at the LHC in order to establish what the parameters of this next generation lepton collider should be. Secondly, when the cost of ILC had been more carefully estimated, it turned out to be quite a bit more expensive.

With this delay, and the increased cost of the ILC, a new strategic plan for the US program was needed that was consistent with the changing circumstances and budget realities. And so shortly after I became the Director, the NSF and DOE charged HEPAP to put together a new ten-year plan and the P5 panel [Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel] of HEPAP generated that report. The HEPAP (P5) report basically reminded everyone that particle physics has three scientific frontiers; the energy, intensity and cosmic frontiers. Progress at all three scientific frontiers is needed in order to answer the major questions identified by the field. The guidance we got from the community was that the US should try to have a balanced program at these three frontiers and that there was a real opportunity for the United States to establish a world-class program at the Intensity Frontier, building on the existing accelerator infrastructure at Fermilab. A world-class intensity frontier program would provide the US with an important role in the global HEP program that complements research capabilities elsewhere. This guidance has been used to develop a new US strategic plan and in the last couple of years we have started to implement this plan. The establishment of the new strategic plan and the progress made in implementing this plan is what I would say is the accomplishment I’m most proud of.

Q: In a nutshell, what do you think the US labs can still offer now that the LHC is up and running?

A:  The US laboratories can play important roles in US efforts at all three scientific frontiers. What the US can offer is a world-class Intensity Frontier program.

It has taken the world community more than a decade of investment and hard work to implement the LHC program at CERN. That infrastructure is now there and I think most of the community expects that for the next decade or more CERN and the LHC will be the center for energy frontier studies. The US laboratories and the US community are active and important participants in that program. As the LHC program evolves the US laboratories and universities will participate in extracting the science and in accelerator and detector upgrades as they come along. The laboratories have the core competencies and the technologies to be able to implement these upgrades, and they will partner very well with the universities in doing this.

But as pointed out in the HEPAP (P5) Report, the evolution of Fermilab’s program to develop capabilities for rare decays and neutrino studies offers the opportunity for establishing a world-class US intensity frontier program. If we implement those capabilities, I think this will be the place where people around the world come and participate in these programs. Other US laboratories will play an important role in implementing this program.

At the cosmic frontier we partner with the NSF and NASA in both the ground-based and the space-based observatories. Our laboratories have capabilities for developing this next generation of detectors that I think will allow us to play an important role with these other agencies.

Q: How is high-energy physics research important to the average person?

When I sit down on a plane and start talking to the person next to me about what I do and particle physics, I invariably find that there’s this intellectual curiosity about exactly how things work, what the fundamental particles and forces of nature are. There are these just fascinating questions that I think catch the imagination of everyone. I mean there’s a form of matter, dark matter, that is twenty-five percent of the energy balance of the universe and we have no idea what it is. There is an acceleration of the universe that is either a new force that we do not know about, or it is in fact telling us something about the properties of gravity over large distances. Fascinating questions! At the LHC there is a chance to produce and perhaps understand what this dark matter particle is. There is the possibility that we are going to see a whole new range of particles, super-symmetry, new dimensions; all of this is very fascinating.

It’s fascinating for young scientists, and the opportunity to be able to participate in such studies attracts the best minds among young people. It recruits a whole range of young people into the field and the problems that we take on are very complex.  Everything that we build is generally the next generation. It is pushing the frontiers in terms of instrumentation, in terms of accelerator capability, and that of course brings in and challenges engineers and designers and particle physicists. So this attracts a whole generation of scientists and technical people, of which some fraction remain in the field but the other fraction of these people go out into the private sector or parts of the government. The technologies that we develop are transferred to the private sector and they contribute to US competitiveness.

If we read The Gathering Storm, and other analyses, the way the United States is going to be able to compete is by continuing to drive innovation. Particle physics is a field that, in trying to understand and answer fundamental questions, develops the next generation of technology, the next generation of scientists–that get motivated and are always at the cutting edge of technology–and the new ideas that are going to contribute to the country. So I think it’s the intellectual curiosity as well as this underpinning of people and technologies that are important to the country.

Q: What do you see as the outlook for the future of high-energy physics in this country and what challenges does it face?

A: I think that the challenges we face are that most of the tools that we need to answer the next questions are now quite big and they’re quite expensive and they’re quite complex. The challenge is to provide enough resources for exploring these next generation technologies so that the cost of the tools and the accelerators are going to decrease. That’s one of the challenges.

The other challenge has to do with the context we’re living with right now. The world is in the midst of struggling with financial issues. There is emphasis on dealing with the energy problem, climate change, and national competitiveness. In that context, within the Office of Science, there are programs that are focused on trying to deliver, in a rather short time, solutions to some of these problems. I think that rightly so, resources should be provided to try to solve these problems.

The challenge, I would like to say, is to educate the policy makers that a field like high energy physics in the long term is going to be driving innovation, and in the process, develop important scientific and technical core competencies for the country, and that adequate resources should be provided to this field in order to sustain it and allow it to contribute in the long term, as the country deals with some of the more immediate problems.

Q: The prevailing wisdom seems to be that funding for science programs will be tighter in the future. Do you think that’s going to be the case? What do you think the future of federal funding for science programs will be?

A: I think the country as a whole, the taxpayers, the administration and Congress really believe it is time to deal with some issues facing the country. These are very complex issues so federal funding for science is going to have to compete with the other priorities that the government faces. High-energy physics and all of basic research is going to have to make a case in the context of more applied research. There’s a case to be made for a balanced program, and that’s going to be the challenge.

Q: What do you think is the future of US participation in programs like the LHC, ITER, the ILC and other international science collaborations?

A: I think we are going to continue our participation in the LHC. As I mentioned, globally other countries have interests, at some point down the road, in developing the next generation of accelerator facilities for particle physics. There’s going to be cooperation in trying to leverage the funds globally in order to spend the most wisely in terms of R&D that will position the countries interested in doing this in the future. ITER I have no comments on, it’s just outside of my expertise, but clearly the US has joined this and is a partner in this endeavor.

Q: Why is it you are stepping down as Associate Director?

A: Twenty years. I’ve been with DOE for twenty years now and I just thought it was time to go do something else.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I have no plans at this moment.

Q: What advice would you have for your successor at the office?

A: The advice I would give would be to make sure that you engage the scientific community in identifying the scientific opportunities and priorities. You need to ask the community to do this exercise in the context of what may be reality.  In my experience, with both NSAC in nuclear physics and with HEPAP in high energy physics, that the scientific community will step up and really seriously address this and give good advice. You need to then take that advice. Your focus has got to be on what science you can deliver to the country. If in fact you identify those priorities right, and you deliver, than I think the program will be successful.

Q: How does working in an administrative position compare to being a research scientist? What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

A: The thing I tell someone who comes in and interviews for a job is that when I was a research scientist I was an expert in a certain area. I was a mile deep and I thought I was broad, but really I was an inch wide. When you come here and become a program manager, you will find that what you really need to do is be a mile wide, and then you try to be as deep as you can. I think your perspective changes. When I was a research scientist I was very focused on answering certain questions. When you become a program manager in an office such as this, you begin to look strategically for what is important for the US program to accomplish. Your perspective changes enormously. Both are enormously challenging and satisfying careers, but they’re really quite different. To be a program manager you do need to really be on top of the science. You’re in a position to really understand the physics opportunities and their significance, because every proposal gets reviewed by perhaps five experts and you sit through many reviews. You utilize that advice, but if you’re here for a few years, you need to direct the program in a way that delivers something for the country.  

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I spent twenty years as a research scientist doing research and I immensely enjoyed that. I came here as a detailee for one year and I saw this as a challenge. In looking back at it, I’ve very much enjoyed it, it’s been very satisfying and I think I’ve accomplished a few things. And so, I’m very happy that I had a chance to do this.

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Editor: Alan Chodos

February 2011 (Volume 20, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
APS Member Count Tops 48,000
New Physical Review Journal Offers Online, Open Access Publishing
Kovar Reflects on State of High Energy Physics, and the Road Ahead
Funding Runs Out to Keep Tevatron Alive
Comments Sought for APS Non-Proliferation Petition
New PhDs Trending Away from Postdoc Positions
Dutch, Spanish Physicists to Give March Meeting Beller Lectures
COMPETES Act Signed Into Law
Top Ten Physics-Related News Stories of 2010
Letters To the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Washinton Dispatch
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
International News