OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — On a hill above the main campus of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a sprawling complex called the Spallation Neutron Source. It’s a particle accelerator, although you could think of it as a giant microscope.
The technicians fire protons at nearly the speed of light into a vessel of liquid mercury. Neutrons spew forth, channeled down 19 tubes called beam lines, toward targets of scientific curiosity. When the neutrons hit a target and scatter, they reveal the atomic structure of whatever it is that’s being scrutinized.
“Neutrons are different. They see matter in a different way,” says Paul Langan, associate laboratory director for neutron sciences.
And what’s this about “spallation”?
“You hit a piece of concrete with a hammer. Pieces fly off. That’s spalling,” says lab spokesman Bill Cabage.
This neutron factory, and many other scientific projects at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, find themselves threatened by a different kind of hammering — from the Trump administration.
President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget outline, released last month, envisions a dramatically smaller federal investment in science and medicine, while boosting spending on the military and reserving billions for a wall on the Mexico border. The budget blueprint includes cuts to agencies that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, such as the National Institutes of Health.
The proposed cuts have added some urgency to the March for Science, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of people Saturday in Washington and in cities across the country. The march, inspired by the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, reflects dismay in the scientific community about comments and actions by Trump perceived to be hostile to science.
A recurring theme of small-government conservatives is that federal dollars crowd out private investment in research. These critics object to the government “picking winners and losers.”
In a Facebook post last September that was later deleted, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, referred to comments about a bill dealing with the Zika virus epidemic. He wrote, “No one has written me yet, though, to ask what might be the best question: do we really need government-funded research at all.” Mulvaney was selected by Trump to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The national lab here gets about 80 percent of its funding from the Energy Department’s Office of Science, which would lose $900 million — more than one-sixth of its funding — if Trump’s budget outline were embraced by Congress. Some agencies within the Energy Department would vanish altogether.
The OMB, responding to questions from The Washington Post, released a statement saying that the budget blueprint “reasserts the proper role of government by increasing the reliance on the private sector to fund later stage research, development, demonstration, commercialization, and deployment of energy technologies while focusing Federal funding on early stage R & D.”
L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, has been pushing hard against the proposed cuts, saying that U.S. investment in research and development, as a percentage of GDP, has been eroding for decades. Nothing less than America’s leadership in science is at stake, Reif told The Post.
“We are in a global competition,” Reif said. “While we are dwindling and reducing our funding for research, China is growing rapidly.”
Oak Ridge lab’s director, Thom Mason, said a large cut in the Office of Science could not be handled through minor “trimming around the edges.” He pointed to the Spallation Neutron Source: “In the end, the machine is either on or it’s not.”
This was Trump Country on Nov. 8. The city of Oak Ridge is in Anderson County, where Trump won 65 percent of the vote. In many of the rural counties in east Tennessee, Trump won more than 80 percent of the vote.
Few places in America have received as much federal investment over the past century as eastern Tennessee. This was a region where, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public corporation that dammed rivers and brought electricity to the impoverished rural South.
In the early days of World War II, the Army needed someplace remote to build a secret city for the Manhattan Project. The city of Oak Ridge sprouted overnight. On multiple sites, engineers threw together massive buildings in which thousands of workers labored to refine naturally occurring uranium into a version that the physicists said could be used in a new kind of bomb. Only after the obliteration of Hiroshimadid the government reveal what had been going on for several years — that inside the fences of Oak Ridge this secret community had a world-changing mission.
After the war the federal government stuck around. One valley away from the national laboratory is the Y-12 National Security Complex, where the government stores and processes highly enriched uranium. Y-12 continues to be the site of protests by peace activists. Some of the local pain from Trump-era budget cuts could be offset by increased military spending.
At the national lab, officials stick to their message about the merits of scientific research — and they show off their impressive hardware, such as the supercomputer named Titan.
“If the private sector is doing what we’re doing, we’re not doing our jobs,” said Jack Wells, director of science for the lab’s National Center for Computational Sciences.
Wells reeled off the vital statistics of Titan, including 18,688 computer nodes working in tandem. Visitors have to wear earplugs in the computer room because of noise from the cooling fans. Wells said a new supercomputer will be built in a nearby room that is five to 10 times faster. This is competitive stuff — China has the fastest supercomputers in the world.
The lab can show off its supercomputer’s moves with a 37-megapixel, 33-foot-wide, 3-D visualization screen. You can see, for example, how seismic waves would propagate across Southern California and reach peaks of intensity after a massive earthquake on the San Andreas fault. Titan can create a 3-D map of Earth’s interior and the hot plumes that feed volcanoes.
Scientists write grant proposals hoping to get access to these unique government tools. They’re in demand: Langan, at the Spallation Neutron Source, said there’s a waiting list for each of those 19 beam lines.
Langan’s operation is a cavernous realm of pipes, wires and humming machinery. He walks around with a radiation dosimeter around his neckto measure his exposureanda lapel pin that reads “Ts,” for Tennessine, atomic number 117, a recently created element whose name honors the state that is home to Oak Ridge.
At the end of Beam Line 12, a scientist named Helen He showed off the object being scrutinized: a crystal inside a capillary tube, almost too small to see with the naked eye. This was research to understand the structure of an enzyme called beta-lactamase that lets bacteria withstand antibiotic drugs. Humanity has a bacteria problem: Antibiotics don’t work like they used to because the bacteria are becoming resistant — evolution in action in real time. To crack the code of these small organisms, it helps to have neutrons and a big spalling machine.
Ina small office directly on top of another beam line named Sequoia, three scientists were fizzing with excitement about something they were examining via the neutron source.
Igor Zaliznyak said they were studying an exotic molecule that seemed to hold promise for application in data storage. He jotted down the name of the molecule on a pad of paper, using chemistry shorthand: “YbMnBi2.” Most of what Zaliznyak and his colleagues are doing is beyond the ken of a typical visitor, but the gist of their message is that this kind of basic research could lead to paradigm shifts in how we store information.
The Spallation Neutron Source is the most powerful instrument of its kind in America. Japan has a similar machine, and the Swedes want to build one that is five times as powerful. Langan said the Oak Ridge lab would like to build a second target building next to the current one.
Is he worried about Trump?
“We’ve always historically found strong support across the political spectrum,” he said. “I focus on what I can impact.”
This kind of basic science research has an intrinsic problem: It’s not necessarily practical. That is also its virtue. Many of the greatest advances in technology and medicine — the laser, the MRI machine, the GPS system — emerged serendipitously from basic research. Basic science research seeks to understand the world — and that may lead to something you can purchase at Best Buy.
“It’s a long way away from any real product,” Mason said. “It may be 20 years before that turns into a high-performance, lightweight material for the automotive sector.”
No private company would build something like the neutron source, he said. And if the federal government doesn’t invest in these things, the smartest people in the world will go to some other country that hasn’t been stingy with science funding.
“In science,” Mason said, “there’s not as much value in being second-best.”