The US is falling behind in basic energy sciences, the DOE panel notes

Researchers are working on SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, which, when completed in 2009, became the world’s first hard X-ray free electron laser. Facilities in Europe and Asia have since exceeded their capacity. Photo credit: Matt Beardsley / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Research and major facilities supported by 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 on Aug. 24. As the largest of the six main programs of the DOE Office of Science, BES has an annual budget of $ 2.3 billion.

The report finds that the US has already outperformed in certain BES research areas and is falling behind in the competition for global talent. To strengthen the US’s competitiveness, she recommends strategies such as improving funding mechanisms for junior researchers and junior researchers, improving opportunities for academic staff in research institutions, increasing investment in research infrastructure, and better integrating basic, applied and industrial research.

The report was prepared 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 to assess the international competitiveness of the BES program and recommend strategies for future activities. ESSAC is expected to approve the report after considering feedback from the full committee.

The subcommittee decided to focus on five areas that 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, meso- and nanosciences, 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 assessed U.S. efforts in each area by analyzing publication citations and conference attendance rates over three decades, and consulting with nearly 60 people from national DOE laboratories, universities, private companies, and research organizations outside the U.S.

The report concludes that the United States’ share of the 20% of the most cited publications for each of the critical research areas has declined over the past decade, while China’s share has increased significantly. China is now a leader in areas such as energy storage and sustainable energy science, and the European Union is a leader in quantum information science. With reference to the “qualitatively similar” results in all sub-areas, the report concludes that the results would also apply to other areas of the BES research portfolio.

World-leading US institutions no longer unique

While US light and neutron sources traditionally set the pace worldwide, the report notes that overseas facilities allow other countries to catch up and in many cases surpass US capabilities.

In 2009, for example, the US completed the world’s first hard X-ray free electron laser (XFEL), the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) from SLAC. But today, the European-XFEL facility leads the way in beam brightness, the report says, and the Chinese SHINE-XFEL facility currently under construction aims to enhance the capabilities of a planned upgrade of the LCLS-II facility underway by SLAC to meet or exceed.

Similarly, the report notes that although upgrades to the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source will restore U.S. leadership in the brightness of synchrotron light sources, the capabilities of the sources are rapid can be achieved through planned facilities abroad.

Domestic demand for uptime on US light sources far exceeds current capacity, the report said, and facilities in other countries have “quickly overtaken” the total number of beamlines in the US. XFEL facilities in Europe and Asia together have 16 beam lines and 36 instruments, while the US has 2 beam lines and 8 instruments. Since 2000, the number of synchrotron beamlines worldwide has almost doubled to 879; the number in the US has remained more or less constant at 186.

US neutron sources are also oversubscribed and have “competitive deficits” in terms of facility capacity in Europe, the report said. The situation was “made worse” by this year’s temporary closure of the NIST-operated Center for Neutron Research 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 made upgrading its user facilities a priority and recommends that consideration be given to “additional capital investments in electron microscopy, nano-centers and computing”. It also suggests that the DOE expand its long-term planning efforts beyond the capabilities of the facilities to include “staff, instrumentation, operational innovations and scientific programs in facilities”.

Other countries that are seen as increasingly attractive to researchers

Human resources issues are identified as a major concern throughout the report. “Wide-ranging consultations in the context of this study clearly lead to the conclusion that the US is now losing the global competition for talent,” it says. “According to this study, weakness in recruiting and retaining talent seems to be one of the main reasons why the desired competitive status for the USA is not achieved.”

For example, the report suggests that Europe is now in a “stronger position” in scientific computing, partly due to a “remarkable loss of senior scientists” from the US. The report also finds that European institutions have been more successful in recruiting and retaining academic staff. Because this success is attributed to the wider range of work and career development opportunities available to the facility’s staff in Europe, the report suggests that BES undertake a “thorough analysis” of job descriptions, academic productivity, and career paths of US Americans Facility scientists.

Factors cited in the report as contributing to the situation include the rapid expansion of science infrastructure in China, the difficulty faced by scientists in obtaining visas to work in the US, and the perception that the US is less welcoming to immigrants than in the past.

In addition, the report notes that Europe and Asia have become more attractive to scientists in recent years due to the increasing availability of research funding opportunities for research grants. The report states that “a disturbing number of top scientists” have left the US for positions in Europe in recent years.

The report also discusses the impact of talent recruitment programs, many of which are aimed at encouraging established academics to return to their countries of origin after completing their training or working abroad. He notes that China’s Thousand Talents program has received a lot of attention recently, but notes that “the number of high visibility losses to China in science and engineering is still quite small”.

It also states that China’s program “is by no means unusual in the global landscape,” citing the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme as yet another Asian program aimed at recruiting researchers who may have stayed 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.

Faced with such competition, the report recommends that BES increase funding for junior and middle-career researchers in order to “create a more sustainable career path based on current investments in the development of academic staff”.

The report recommends, among other things, doubling the prize money offered by the DOE’s early career research program to $ 1.5 million over five years for university researchers and $ 5 million for national laboratory researchers in order to complete the program with the European Research Council’s Starting Grants to reconcile. She also suggests offering a follow-up option that will provide at least half of early career award recipients with five years of additional funding, similar to the European Midcareer Consolidator Scholarships.

With few awards lasting more than three years for individual researchers in the natural sciences, the report also recommends the DOE consider establishing a Senior Investigator Awards program that will give top researchers 5 million over five years US dollars available. It is also suggested that a fraction of the awards should be dedicated to recruiting talent based outside the US. “The United States has generally not offered such programs, but instead relies on a steady influx of foreign scholars,” the report said. “However, this study confirms that the influx does not automatically lead to a bond and that the bond actually decreases.”

Editor’s note: This article is taken from an August 31 contribution to FYI, which reports on the federal government’s science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

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