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Building up high-energy physics at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

David Asner ditched tenure to take on an exciting task at a national lab.

Didn't know that the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has a high-energy physics program? Well it does, and it's growing. In 2010 the lab recruited David Asner, who had been spokesman for experiments at Cornell University's CLEO and had also worked on other particle-physics efforts. He left a tenured position at Canada's Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, to join PNNL, which is probably best known for its work on energy, the environment, and global security.

The most visible of the lab's high-energy physics efforts is its US leadership in Belle II, the experiment in Japan that aims to identify new sources of CP violation and other phenomena produced in electron–positron collisions near 10 GeV. Scientists at PNNL also have their hands in the muon-to-electron conversion experiment and Project X at Fermilab. 'PNNL has a 25-year history in dark matter. We are trying to ramp up our participation in second-generation experiments,' says Asner. 'I try to identify pieces of high-energy physics projects where PNNL has unique capability that Fermilab doesn't have. Then I turn around and say, 'We are helping with technical things. We would also like to contribute to the science.''

That attitude has gained him PNNL's top job in high-energy physics programs. It's also earned him the reputation of being a salesman. 'When I walk into a room, people hold their wallets,' he jokes. 'I only want them to fund good proposals—where the technical needs and scientific interests align. This is what I was hired to do.'

Physics Today's Toni Feder chatted with Asner by phone earlier this year.

PT: Summarize the projects and places you were involved with before joining PNNL.

ASNER: Most of my career has centered around the CLEO experiment at Cornell University. I was never employed by Cornell, but I spent most of my adult life in Ithaca [New York]. I commuted there from California, and then lived there, when I was a graduate student at [the University of California] San Diego and Santa Barbara.

I received my PhD in 2000 and then did a postdoc at Livermore [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory], working on ILC [International Linear Collider] physics. The premise was to use lasers and Compton backscattering off of 500-GeV electron or positron beams so you could collide photons. This would be making Higgs bosons from gamma–gamma collisions. A lot of steam went out of that effort when the choice was made in 2004 to use superconducting RF for the ILC. But the physics was very interesting. You could probe the quantum properties of the Higgs that way.

Later I was a glorified postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh. Steve Dytman's group had moved there from Jefferson Lab [Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility] to work on CLEO. They were looking for a senior postdoc, and I was just what the doctor ordered. Coming from Livermore where they pay well, they had to guss up my salary. It was fantastic, except for the part where our grant was zeroed out a year and a half later. I was CLEO physics coordinator at the time the funding disappeared.

So in 2005 I joined Carleton. They were happy to perceive they were repatriating a Canadian—I grew up in Toronto. The chair of the department was an avid hockey player and I play hockey. You use whatever you can.

PT: You were awarded tenure at Carleton; why did you leave a tenured position for a US national lab?

ASNER: There was a disconnect between me and the department. Nominally, it [the Carleton job] was a position to work on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. There was also the attitude that if we, a small department, want to have an impact, we want to work coherently. I did do some work pertaining to the potential to discover the Higgs. But I quickly got distracted. ATLAS was just really big. I like to make an impact, and on CLEO it was easier to do something that somebody would actually notice. CLEO was a warm and fuzzy collaboration of 200 people. I always tell students they're better off being a lead on something small than a small cog on something huge.

Two things happened. I managed to secure funding to work on SuperB, the Italian B factory [canceled last year; see Physics Today, February 2013, page 22], and I also managed to get funding to continue my efforts on CLEO. I was trying to buy out of teaching to focus on CLEO.

My department was not thrilled with this at all. There was a certain amount of 'pay your dues, right now you should focus on your teaching.' That contrasted with the incredible entrepreneurial opportunity put in front of me at PNNL.

In the shoes of my department chair, I would probably have been annoyed [at me] too. I did get tenure, but by then I had already begun negotiating my position at PNNL.

PT: How did the job at PNNL come about?

ASNER: I was sitting in Cornell, and the phone rang. It was a recruiter from PNNL, and he said, 'We would like to start a high-energy physics effort, and we would like you to be a part of it.' I asked him if it was a crank call. Four trips to PNNL later, I accepted a very generous offer. Part of me is driven by a belief that fortune favors the bold.

Every position at PNNL is soft money, so everyone is hungry. It's a very lean organization. They did double my salary, but I have to pull enough grant money in to pay that salary—enough to pay for new efforts, including postdocs.

PT: Why did PNNL want to build up a high-energy physics effort?

ASNER: High-energy physics includes some of the most exciting science of the 21st century, and the technical advances needed to move the science forward are well aligned with PNNL's capabilities—and we want to do exciting science. I think the core of the argument is the same as at Livermore and Los Alamos [National Laboratory]: Anything you want to do on the applied side—like homeland security—requires detector development, simulation, and data analysis. These are skill sets that high-energy physics grows. Depending on the piece of high-energy physics we need, I have tapped the capabilities that live in each of the [PNNL] research directorates—energy and environment, fundamental and computational sciences, national security, and the environmental molecular science laboratory.

Our best funded high-energy effort is Belle II. But if you were going to list the things you would expect PNNL to engage in, in terms of our capabilities, Belle would be fourth. First would be dark matter, and the second and third—it could go either way—could be the muon-to-electron conversion experiment and Project X, a proposed high-power proton accelerator upgrade [both at Fermilab]. So it's sort of funny that the funding does not really match the unbiased view of where our capabilities best fit.

But I think the prospects are quite good that [DOE's Office of High Energy Physics] will fund dark-matter efforts here starting some time next year.

Nuclear physics [at DOE] funds us to work on Majorana [a neutrino experiment getting started in the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota (see Physics Today, February 2013, page 19)]. That is basically the same capability as for dark matter—radio-pure materials, experience with germanium detectors, low-background copper, precision assays. We have scientists heavily involved in the Snowmass [the priority-setting process the US particle-physics community engages periodically; it is meeting this summer in Minneapolis, Minnesota].

PT: How many PNNL scientists are involved in high-energy physics?

ASNER: It's a small fraction of a lot of people. Something north of 80 people have skill sets that matter for high-energy and nuclear physics. It's probably the equivalent of 10 FTEs [full-time equivalent posts], tapping about half the available talent pool.

We have had success here because we have really good people who stepped up and have done good stuff. They have day jobs, but they are excited about these opportunities. And I am grateful to have them. I didn't walk into a vacuum, I walked into a fertile field with a lot of people who are willing to work hard.

PT: What are your plans for high-energy physics at PNNL?

ASNER: Going out 10 years, I'd love for the program to be contributing to all three particle-physics frontiers—the energy frontier, the cosmic frontier, and the intensity frontier—in a substantial and meaningful way.

The intensity frontier is where we have managed to become established. Engagement in dark matter has the prospect of being quite broad. Dark matter is on the front end of the 10-year window. And figuring out how to get engaged in the energy frontier is on the farther end of that.

If the ILC works out in Japan, I could see a role for us there, mostly leveraging our computing capability and our existing relationships, because of Belle, in Japan.

PT: Is it really important for PNNL to be involved in all three frontiers?

ASNER: Not if it's bad strategy, that's for certain. But some of the most exciting things happen at the energy frontier, at least historically, so it would be nice to be a part of that.

I would like the program to be self-sustaining. Right now, if I disappeared, I don't think the program has the legs to continue without me. I would like to have built something here that has enough stability and staying power that when I go on to whatever my next great thing is, this is not a flash in the pan.

PT: What are your personal plans?

ASNER: Looking forward to the next challenge is part of my makeup. I won't be so bold as to think I can predict the next opportunity, but I suppose there are three ways things can go. One would be that I stay here, with high-energy physics growing so exciting that who would want to leave? I could also see myself staying here but growing beyond high-energy physics—that would involve me expanding my scientific portfolio. And then there is staying in the field, but not at PNNL. It would have to be the right time and the right place.


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