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Physicists recommend shutting down the last American hadron collider in budget crunch

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A committee of physicists has concluded that one of the world's only particle colliders should be closed early if an expected budget squeeze isn't alleviated. Today, the US Nuclear Science Advisory Committee led by physicist Robert Tribble presented a report to the Department of Energy, prioritizing the nuclear physics projects that should be funded. As was widely expected, the hammer fell on the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), the only American particle smasher and one of two heavy ion colliders worldwide — the other is CERN's Large Hadron Collider, currently on a multi-year hiatus. Tevatron, the only other hadron (composite particle) collider besides the LHC and RHIC, shut down in 2011.

Despite endorsing the proposal, Tribble expressed regret. "I don't think there are winners and losers here," Science reports him saying. "We're all losers if this comes to pass." He also worried that shutting down the RHIC could cause the field of physics to "spiral down" in the US.

"We're all losers if this comes to pass."

RHIC opened in 2000, and it was set to run well into the future, but now it could be sacrificed for other facilities the NSAC hopes will be funded. That includes an upgrade of the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) and the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University. Tribble has told Nature that RHIC was recommended for closure only because of the funding and logistical problems: FRIB already had investments from the university, and even ending construction on it wouldn't have left enough money to run both CEBAF and the collider.

Federal funding for nuclear physics was $547 million in 2012, and it's estimated to shrink in coming years, requiring tough decisions. But Doon Gibbs of Brookhaven National Laboratory, home of RHIC, insists the collider could still find funding: "RHIC has been around 10 years and it’s got another 10 years to go." The Department of Energy is expected to follow the committee's recommendation if the budget can't fund all programs.