Never mind that the battle cry is "better education equals better jobs," that a PhD is supposed to be one of the highest achievements one can attain, that our own government continues to tell us that science is important. This patina just serves to hide a rusting inner truth. Nuclear physics in the US is on its deathbed.
Now, don't get me wrong. FRIB will be a great boon to the nuclear physics community. But the cost of FRIB - not only financially - is too much burden for us to bear. In order to "get" FRIB, we had to trade HRIBF. We had to give up Yale. And that's just recently. For many years, smaller university labs have been closing, unable to fund themselves or else seemingly at the end of their useful lives. Slowly, the community has become, instead of vibrant individual groups doing competitive research at a number of labs, an array of satellite groups, each competing against another - not for results - but for experimental time and resources.
To use a (limited) analogy, the heyday of nuclear physics was like having dozens of Mom-and-Pop stores, each competing, and specializing slightly. But slowly, individual shops are being lost, and are being replaced by Walmart - a gigantic monopoly over the whole scientific field. This is what FRIB will be. And unlike our corporate example, FRIB will not provide more of its commodity. We will have more isotopes available for research, but the same amount of time to study them. FRIB can't run three-years' worth of experiments in one year. It's still just a year. So now more of the community is fighting for the same amount of experimental time and resource - which can only mean that fewer in the community are successful. Smaller university groups will either disappear, or be forced to scientifically amalgamate themselves with larger, more successful, groups.
Particle physics has already gone this route, if not for any other reason than money. It simply isn't financially viable to run two dozen versions of CERN. But now that the Tevatron at Fermilab has closed, we only have CERN. The Department of Energy has, of late, threatened to close even more facilities.
One of the great things about science is the objective way it views the universe. We pride ourselves on having others in our field try to prove our answers wrong. But they have to be independent in order for the system to really work. And if the US government keeps closing labs, we'll soon only have one place to do nuclear physics - and thus no truly "independent" researchers.
This collapsing of a field into only one facility (from many) has other problems as well. Fairly or unfairly, our merit as researchers is partially determined by the number of publications we have in a given year. With more people fighting for fewer resources, the total number of publications will decrease, as will the number of publications any one researcher has to his or her name. Because outside researchers are forced, in this scenario, to collaborate with larger and larger groups, only the lucky few who have a job at the one remaining facility will have plenty of publications. Everyone else has to "go through" these few staff members in order to do an experiment. This is already happening in nuclear physics - while on paper things such as a Program Advisory Committee or Experimental Evaluation Committee still exist, experimental proposals submitted to these governing bodies are less successful if a member of the staff at the facility isn't involved. It's simply a matter of familiarity. Proposing a successful experiment at Oak Ridge is difficult if you're not intimately involved with the day-to-day goings-on in the lab. You can gain that expertise by including someone from Oak Ridge in your experimental planning and proposal. So if, in ten years' time, the only place we can do nuclear physics experiments is FRIB, then all experiment proposals to FRIB will involve, in some way, FRIB staff. This creates a potentially unfair advantage when applying for jobs - those from small university groups will have far fewer publications than those who are laboratory staff, even if otherwise either person is equally intelligent, capable, and qualified. A loss of experimental facilities also leads to difficulties in performing different types of experiments. Just because you've spent $500 million to build a lab that can create something special and specific doesn't mean a $50,000 experiment can't also inform what you're trying to figure out. Sure, I'd love to do experiments with radioactive aluminum, but I learned a little something about it recently using stable silicon (the same stuff computer chips are made from). Both approaches are complementary - and necessary. With fewer experiments and fewer ways to do them, the potential for systematic errors increases. And with fewer experiments (as there is only one place to do them), more people will be on each experiment, so the contribution of each is lessened. Particle physics papers have hundreds, if not thousands, of coauthors (and it's always suspect as to how much each coauthor actually contributed to the work). If a PhD candidate had to design, set up, run, debug, analyze and publish an experiment with minimal help, he/she would have substantially more knowledge than the PhD student who spent the same amount of time simply making sure all of the cables on one side of one detector were plugged in for one experiment. But in the end, both get the PhD. It has become a bit of a running gag in the physics community that taking a two-year postdoc position with a particle physics collaboration is roughly equivalent to taking a paid vacation. Nuclear physics is headed this way. Potential PhD students may see this as a boon - less work for equal reward - but it spells death for the field. What good are a thousand coauthors on a paper if not one of them knows how to do more than one-thousandth of anything?
I know I'm picking on particle physics a bit, but it's because particle physics stands already as the model for what happens when you only have one place for your entire scientific field to do experiments. It weakens your science, it weakens your scientists, and it leaves you unprotected from the whims of your funding bodies (one Mom-and-Pop store closing is sad; Walmart going bankrupt is catastrophic). Nuclear physics research may not recover from this; we may already be too far down this road to turn around. And nuclear physics in the guise of nuclear energy and nuclear engineering won't save us, either. There will not be a nuclear renaissance, not in the near future. The public is too sensitive to incidents like what happened at Fukushima, rare (and not as dangerous) as they may be. And even if we did start building and running more nuclear plants, the research community is still at a loss. This is yet one more symptom of a dying field; there is such a degree of specialization that, as a nuclear physics researcher, I can't get a job in nuclear engineering research.
The final question remains. Why should you care?
Why should the public care if one scientific field, an aging one at that, finally dies? You should care because it affects you, too.
You may not realize it, but without nuclear physicists, you'd have an entirely different world. Nuclear physicists may have given the world The Bomb, but nuclear physicists are also the only ones who know how to safely dismantle and dispose the bombs we have. How else would you know whether the new TSA scanners are safe? How would you know how old ancient artifacts are, how would you keep astronauts safe in space, and how would you treat cancer?
And to take a broader perspective, it isn't just nuclear physics that we're considering. Death of one scientific field is a partial death for all science. Any time we stop pursuing objective truth, we lose a piece of ourselves. It tolls for thee.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." - John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII (1623)