Access to Major User Facilities
User facilities at DOE laboratories range from large, international facilities such as the Advanced Photon Source at ANL, to smaller, single-purpose facilities such as the Combustion Research Facility at Sandia. The stewardship function for these unique capabilities and advanced scientific facilities has grown rapidly over the last decades and is now a dominant role of the laboratories. Approximately 20-35 percent of the budgets of four of the multiprogram laboratories (Argonne, Berkeley, Brookhaven and Oak Ridge) were spent on facility operations and construction in FY 2002.1 Facilities at the labs are viewed as extremely important resources for academics, often providing opportunities to conduct key scientific experiments that cannot be conducted anywhere else.
There is also a wide range of users, described by William McLean from Sandia National Laboratories, John Gibson from Argonne National Laboratory, Takeshi Egami from the University of Tennessee, and others. Users range from visiting university scientists and engineers, to industry researchers, to students (both undergraduate and graduate levels) and postdoctoral researchers. Users are attracted to the unique facilities and capabilities at the laboratory and the high-quality operational support provided there, as well as the opportunity to work with world-class staff. The process for gaining access to these facilities varies by facility, by funding opportunity, and by scientific team.
Several presenters described the collaborative management approach
employed at select user facilities to ensure the involvement of users in planning the activities of the facilities and the scientific projects to be implemented there. From Egami’s perspective as a user, he felt that academics were deeply involved in the planning, construction, and operation of facilities and that university-laboratory collaborations are strong and will continue to grow. Nonetheless, participants in this session acknowledged that there are challenges to effective collaboration, some of which were discussed in the dialogue on incentives and structures, and some of which are more specific to the facility access requirements. Primary issues identified by participants included contractual issues, funding, and increasing concern about access to these facilities by foreign nationals. Each of these is discussed in more detail below.
CONTRACTUAL AND PLANNING ISSUES
Contractual issues were raised by a number of participants in the User Facilities breakout session as a barrier to collaboration. Although many of the challenges echoed the perspectives raised in the Incentives and Structures session, this group also raised the problem of negotiating specific access to user facilities on a case-by-case basis, where no universal standard or master agreement exists that would facilitate collaborative work. Administrative arrangements are on a case-by-case basis, and often inconsistent from institution to institution. The need was expressed by most participants for standardized MOUs (memorandum of understanding) between universities and user facilities. Intellectual property terms, in particular, varied across institutions, were very complex, and were viewed by many as one reason for the increased difficulty in creating collaborative arrangements (see discussion in Incentives and Structures).
In addition, the need for an agreement at the funding agency level was identified as important to successful interactions. Differences in agency guidelines for working with DOE user facilities lead to differential access for grantees funded by different sources. Egami referred to the agreement between DOE and NIH for use of beamlines, for example, which has provided positive support to lab-university collaboration. In NSF, on the other hand, there is a process that requires beamtime to be approved as a precondition for funding, leading to a “chicken-and-egg” problem.
Relative to planning the direction and course of the facility itself, some concern was raised that input from the scientific community is well established for large facilities but smaller facilities don’t benefit from the same level of interaction and support.
Additional concerns were raised relative to a perceived decline in the scientific orientation of the facilities, driven perhaps by the general reduc-
tion in DOE support for science. Holland pointed out that whereas large facilities have well articulated missions that are easily understood by Congress, smaller facilities have no such articulated mission and have more difficulty garnering support.
The funding issue was raised as part of the larger overall concern that funding for basic science in general is declining, and particularly for the physical sciences. Ever more expensive large facilities will require new, creative financing models that have yet to be determined. In the context of user facilities and collaborative research, the availability of resources was definitely seen by many as an issue. Users consistently mentioned travel funds as problematic. University investigators wanted travel funds so that they could use the beamlines as the scientific needs become apparent in their research. This was not something they felt they were likely to know about 3 years in advance, when the original research proposal was written and requests for travel funds could be incorporated more easily. Expressly allowing supplemental funding requests to DOE grants would more easily allow PIs to travel to user facilities and conduct the necessary research in an appropriate time frame to support their work. In this case, NSF was raised as an example of an agency that more readily supports these incremental requests.
From the perspective of DOE lab researchers, several participants stated that they had similar difficulties in obtaining travel funding, even for their own principal investigators on a project. However, the laboratories’ flexibility in addressing travel funding requests varied and appeared to improve with the laboratory’s access to non-DOE (e.g., contractor origin) funding sources. One researcher indicated that the problems he encountered at Sandia were “not serious.”
A resolution of the travel funding issue was not easily forthcoming. One expressed barrier was the national laboratory researchers’ fear that DOE money spent in travel would be taken from the technical staff at the laboratory and further drain support from the user facility itself. The example of user facilities in Europe was raised by Gibson as a potential model for generating travel funding support. There, he noted, large user facilities routinely provide travel grants as part of their operating budgets, comprising approximately 1 percent of the cost of operating the facility. However, not all workshop participants agreed this model would solve the dilemma. The allocation of travel funds at the agency level could well be less personally painful to laboratory researchers, relieving them of the necessity of making individual tradeoff decisions. Yet, opponents of travel funding support felt that, in the context of a fixed, overall budget, the
outcome was sure to be the same: a guaranteed budget for travel funding would limit the amounts that could be spent on other laboratory needs. Even the 1 percent figure cited for the European approach represented a significant incursion into laboratory operational needs. The potential solution of an expanded DOE budget that could accommodate all needs, including essential travel needs, was not considered realistic by parties on either side of the discourse.
ACCESS BY FOREIGN NATIONALS
Increased attention to security since 9/11 has presented some new challenges for collaborative research. Foreign-born or non-U.S. citizens represent an important fraction of the scientific community and an increasing fraction of graduate students in science and engineering.2 An increasing focus on security and preapprovals for foreign nationals has made it more difficult for non-U.S. citizens to have access to user facilities. Not only is there increased paperwork, but delays in obtaining visas can prevent foreign researchers from getting to the facility when their access date arrives. Given that many of these facilities, particularly the beamlines, are generally oversubscribed, finding alternative access times consistent with the time lines for the research under way can be a major challenge. A related concern was that the current U.S. political position, reinforced by limiting access at these U.S. facilities, will result in reciprocal action and exclusion of U.S. researchers from state-of-the-art foreign facilities.
Although there are certainly differences among facilities, McClean put forward a suggested list of best practices that could help address some of the challenges mentioned above. Finding ways to ensure collaborative research at user facilities is important, because as Gibson points out, “Partner users not only do great science, but they leave the facility better for the general user.”
SUGGESTED BEST PRACTICES FOR SMALLER USER FACILITIES
Envision collaborations at the proposal stage, and be flexible in your approach.
Engage graduate students, and ensure that they are in residence for some portion of their thesis research related to facility use.
Ensure capable and committed support staff at the facility, as well as a well-staffed user office.
Provide support to foreign national users and help them with various requirements for access to the facility.
Implement joint postdoctoral appointments when possible.
Use laboratory staff as adjunct faculty.
Increase collaborations with industry where appropriate.
Exploit advanced information technologies to take advantage of virtual links and true “collaboratories.”