US is falling behind in basic energy sciences, DOE panel finds- Times Of Nation
The research and major facilities supported through the US Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program are losing ground to Europe and China, a DOE advisory committee warned in a draft report released 24 August. The largest of the DOE Office of Science’s six main programs, BES commands a $2.3 billion annual budget and supports a national fleet of light and neutron source facilities and nanoscience research centers that together typically serve more than 15 000 users each year.
The report finds the US has already been surpassed in certain BES research fields and is falling behind in the competition for global talent. To bolster US competitiveness, it recommends strategies such as improving funding mechanisms for early-career and midcareer scientists, enhancing opportunities for staff scientists at research facilities, increasing investment in research infrastructure, and better integrating basic, applied, and industrial research.
The report was produced by a subcommittee of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) chaired by Harvard University chemist and Kavli Foundation president Cynthia Friend. The Office of Science commissioned BESAC’s study in February 2019, asking it to evaluate the international competitiveness of the BES program and recommend strategies for future activities. BESAC is expected to approve the report after incorporating feedback from the full committee.
The subcommittee chose to focus on five areas it deemed critical-
- Quantum information science, including quantum computing, communication, simulation, and sensing
- Science for energy applications, such as energy storage and sustainable fuels
- Matter for energy and information, including quantum materials, mesoscience and nanoscience, and neuromorphic computing
- Industrially relevant science for sustainability, including polymer upcycling, electrocatalysis, carbon capture, and transformative manufacturing
- Advanced research facilities, including neutron sources, x-ray light sources, and electron microscopy
The subcommittee benchmarked US efforts in each area by analyzing publication citations and conference participation rates spanning three decades and consulting with nearly 60 individuals across DOE national laboratories, universities, private industry, and research organizations outside the US.
The report concludes that the US share of the 20% most-cited papers for each of the critical research areas has dropped over the past decade, whereas China’s share has increased significantly. China now leads in areas such as energy storage and sustainable energy science, and the European Union leads in quantum information science. Citing the ‘qualitatively similar’ results across subfields, the report infers that the findings would apply across other areas of the BES research portfolio as well.
World-leading US facilities no longer unique
Although US light and neutron sources have traditionally set the pace globally, the report finds that facilities abroad are allowing other countries to catch up to, and in many cases surpass, US capabilities.
For example, in 2009 the US completed the world’s first hard x-ray free-electron laser (XFEL), SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). But today the European XFEL facility leads in beam brightness, the report states, and the Chinese SHINE XFEL facility currently under construction aims to match or exceed the capabilities of a planned upgrade to SLAC’s in-progress LCLS-II facility.
Similarly, the report notes that although upgrades underway at Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source will restore US leadership in synchrotron light source brightness, the sources’ capabilities will be quickly matched by planned facilities abroad.
Domestic demand for user time at US light sources far exceeds current capacity, the report says, and facilities in other countries have ‘rapidly outpaced’ the US in total number of beamlines. XFEL facilities in Europe and Asia boast a combined 16 beamlines and 36 instruments, whereas the US has 2 beamlines and 8 instruments. Since 2000, the number of synchrotron beamlines worldwide has nearly doubled, to 879; the number in the US has remained roughly constant, at 186.
US neutron sources are likewise oversubscribed and face ‘competitive deficits’ relative to facility capacity in Europe, the report states. The situation has been ‘exacerbated’ by this year’s temporary shutdown of the Center for Neutron Research operated by NIST and the need to ‘upgrade or replace’ the 55-year-old High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The report recognizes that BES has been prioritizing upgrades to its user facilities and recommends considering ‘additional capital investment in electron microscopy, nanocenters, and computational facilities.’ It also suggests that DOE extend its long-range planning efforts beyond facility capabilities to encompass ‘human resources, instrumentation, operational innovations, and science programs at facilities.’
Other countries seen as increasingly attractive to researchers
Workforce issues arise as a major concern throughout the report. ‘Broad consultations carried out during this study lead unambiguously to the conclusion that the US is now losing the global competition for talent,’ it states. ‘Weakness in talent recruitment and retention appears from this study to be one root cause of failure to achieve the desired competitive status for the US.’
For instance, the report suggests Europe is now in a ‘stronger position’ in scientific computing due in part to a ‘notable loss of senior scientists’ from the US. In addition, the report asserts that European facilities have been more successful in recruiting and retaining scientific staffs. Attributing that success to the broader scope of work and career development opportunities available to facility staff in Europe, the report suggests that BES conduct a ‘thorough analysis’ of the job descriptions, scientific productivity, and career paths of US facility scientists.
Among the factors the report identifies as contributing to the situation are the rapid expansion of scientific infrastructure in China, scientists’ difficulties in obtaining visas to work in the US, and the perception that the US is less welcoming to immigrants than in the past.
Moreover, the report finds that an increased availability of research funding opportunities has made Europe and Asia more attractive to scientists in recent years, highlighting in particular ‘generous long-term funding’ offered by Germany’s Max Planck Institutes and the European Research Council’s five-year research grants. The report states that ‘a troubling number of top scientists’ have left the US for positions in Europe in recent years.
The report also discusses the effect of talent recruitment programs, many of which are designed to encourage established scientists to return to their countries of origin after pursuing education or work abroad. It notes the recent attention paid to China’s Thousand Talents program but observes that ‘the number of high visibility losses to China is still quite small in the physical sciences and engineering.’
It also states that China’s program is ‘by no means unusual in the global landscape,’ citing the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme as another Asian program aiming to recruit researchers who might have remained in the US. It also notes competition from programs in other English-speaking countries, such as the Australian Laureate Fellowships, the Canadian Research Chairs program, and the UK’s Royal Society Research Professorships program.
In light of such competition, the report recommends that BES boost funding for early-career and midcareer scientists to ‘create a more sustainable career path that builds on current investments in the development of the scientific workforce.’
Among other possibilities, the report recommends doubling the award amounts offered by DOE’s Early Career Research Program to $1.5 million over five years for university investigators and $5 million for national laboratory investigators, bringing the program into alignment with the European Research Council’s Starting Grants. It also suggests offering a follow-on opportunity that would provide five years of additional funding to at least half of the early-career award recipients, similar to Europe’s midcareer Consolidator grants.
Noting that there are few awards with a duration greater than three years available for single investigators in the physical sciences, the report also recommends that DOE consider establishing a Senior Investigator Award program that would provide $5 million over five years to top investigators. It further suggests dedicating a fraction of the awards to recruiting talent based outside the US. ‘The United States has not generally offered such schemes, depending instead on a constant influx of foreign scientists,’ the report states. ‘However, this study confirms that influx does not automatically lead to retention and, in fact, that retention is diminishing.’
Editor’s note- This article is adapted from a 31 August post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a feedproxy.google.com feed.)
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