MIT fusion experiment benefits from budget deal, but more uncertainty looms

From the control room, graduate students perform experiments on the Alcator C-Mod tokamak to support their thesis work.
From the control room, graduate students perform experiments on the Alcator C-Mod tokamak to support their thesis work.
courtesy of Paul Rivenberg/Mary Pat McNally, MIT

It’s a universal source of anxiety among scientists these days: the uncertainties about federal funding for research. Every time I speak to someone, whether they research cancer or the cosmos, the topic seems to come up. People are spending lots of time writing grants, and the competition is getting more intense for fewer funds. Scientists complain that the budget uncertainties mean they spend much of their time advocating for their research and scrambling for funds, instead of doing the thing they’re best at—science. Talented researchers are, they fear, avoiding science.

Nowhere was that conversation more stark than at a fusion experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was slated to be zeroed out altogether in the federal budget. The scientists began a spirited save-our-experiment campaign, but all appeared to be lost last year. The Alcator C-Mod experiment at MIT had stopped accepting new graduate students in 2012, and 70 employees were facing layoffs.

Those researchers, engineers, and technicians breathed a sigh of relief this week, with the unexpected news that the budget deal released by Congress Monday night included $22 million for the experiment, which had been slated to shut down completely. The goal of the experiment is to learn how to harness nuclear fusion—combining atoms—to produce energy.

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With the flush of new funding, the experiment will run for its typical span, 12 to 14 weeks this year. No one will be laid off, according to Miklos Porkolab, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center where the project is housed. On Friday, the scientists will meet to talk about the experiments and the research schedule.

Porkolab said that the project had gone into survival mode. Layoffs that had been expected to take place in December were delayed when the Department of Energy gave MIT enough money for the researchers to maintain the experiment in a “warm shutdown” phase, at least until the budgetary situation was settled.

Although the funding announcement is great news for the project, it doesn’t resolve the larger problem—the project was treading water month-to-month. Even with the new funding, which ensures the experiment can continue until the end of the September, the reprieve is short on a scientific time scale.

“What we’d like to do is again resume bringing in more graduate students. At this funding level, we could do that. The only issue is what happens in 2015,” Porkolab said. “If we bring in students, they expect five years of support for a Ph.D.”

Porkolab said a significant number of new applicants for graduate school at MIT have expressed interest in plasma research, but that when the Obama Administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year is unveiled, it may not have set aside any money for the fusion experiment for next year.

“We may have to go through the same cycle again,” Porkolab said. The uncertainty, he said, takes its toll on the science, the ability to plan research projects, and the people who work on the experiment.

The United States has made investments in a giant international fusion experiment that will be much more powerful that the MIT project. The international investment is continuing in the current budget, but Porkolab says that it is equally important to keep up the domestic program running. Insights gained from the smaller experiment, he said, will ultimately help researchers run the larger one more efficiently.