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Thanks to budget cuts, we may never know for sure why the universe is expanding

Good news! Scientists who want to destroy the earth with microscopic black holes will soon find it just a little more difficult to do so. Bad news: The funding that supports such advanced particle physics research is drying up, threatening America's leadership role in international science.

A series of budget scenarios laid out by the Department of Energy finds that if funding for high-energy particle experiments were frozen for the next three years, before it's then allowed to rise 3 percent a year thereafter, DoE would have to scale back some of its most important projects. These are studies that can potentially teach us about the most basic workings of the universe. The picture gets even grimmer under an alternative scenario that has DoE's budget for high-energy physics frozen for three years and rising for 2 percent every year after that.

The difference, when you account for the various budgetary starting points for each scenario, amounts to about half a billion dollars over the next decade. Spread out like that, $500 million doesn't sound like much. But the constraints would be "precarious" for future energy research, warns the agency's Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5), which wrote the report. It would mean layoffs. It would mean scientists wouldn't be able to launch a next-generation study of dark matter, the stuff that's thought to be causing the universe to expand. The United States might even have to give up on the experiments that make it a leading contributor to science:

It approaches the point beyond which hosting a large ($1B scale) project in the U.S. would not be possible while maintaining the other elements necessary for mission success, particularly a minimal research program, the strong leadership position in a small number of core, near-term projects, which produce a steady stream of important new physics results, and advances in accelerator technology. Without the capability to host a large project, the U.S. would lose its position as a global leader in this field, and the international relationships that have been so productive would be fundamentally altered.

The situation may be even worse than P5 says. President Obama's proposed 2015 budget for high-energy physics doesn't keep funding flat but actually slashes it by 6.8 percent, according to the journal Nature.

Budget fights are eternal, and everyone stands to lose something important when their funding gets cut. But high-energy physics is the kind of final-frontier stuff that inspires people to go into science in the first place.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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