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The future of US particle physics is in limbo as its central institution, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), continues to receive mixed grades and its management is up for grabs.

Conditions at the lab were called into question in 2021, when Fermilab failed an annual assessment by its overseer, the US Department of Energy (DoE). It received a B grade overall — a B+ was required to pass — and earned a C for its handling of the troubled multibillion-dollar Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), the nation’s flagship particle-physics project. Last year, the DoE took the unusual step of opening the bidding on the contract to run Fermilab, which since 2007 has been operated by the Fermi Research Alliance (FRA) — a partnership between the University of Chicago in Illinois and the Universities Research Association, a consortium of 90 mostly-US-based universities. A University of Chicago spokesperson emphasized the university’s “deep and longstanding commitment” to Fermilab, and declined to comment further, but Nature has confirmed that the FRA is reapplying to manage the lab.

The FRA is not the only contender. Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), which runs the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, has confirmed that it is competing for the contract. “AUI excels in making scientific and technological breakthroughs possible by delivering on large science projects on-time and on-budget,” AUI chief executive Adam Cohen told Nature. “We are very interested in bringing our experience to the challenges we understand exist at Fermi.”

In addition to AUI, a virtual meeting on 11 January about proposals for the management contract was attended by Paragon Systems, a private security firm based in Herndon, Virginia, which declined to comment. Proposals must be submitted by 4 March. A DoE board will make a selection by the end of the year, and the new contract will begin next year.

Since the release of the critical report card in 2021, Fermilab has acquired new leadership. In April 2022, FRA selected accelerator physicist Lia Merminga to be the director of the lab. Under her watch, the 2022 and 2023 assessments improved, although some problems remain: last year’s report card gave Fermilab high marks for many of its scientific objectives, but it scored a failing B– on environment, health and safety. “Overall, the lab’s performance has been steadily improving,” Merminga told Nature. “We continue to build a strong workplace culture focused on safety.”

Key infrastructure

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Located about 65 kilometres west of Chicago, Fermilab was founded in 1967 and has many advances in fundamental science to its name. These include the discoveries of the bottom and top quarks, which are a pair of heavy subatomic particles essential to the current picture of particle physics, the Standard Model. Over the past decade, the lab has focused on neutrinos — mysterious, weakly interacting elementary particles that can pass through matter mostly unimpeded — with DUNE as its flagship programme.

Starting in 2031, scientists at Fermilab will shoot a beam of neutrinos through the Earth to a former mine in South Dakota that is 1,300 kilometres away. At that site, some of the particles will hit giant vats of liquid argon, creating detectable flashes of light and electricity.

DUNE-LBNF excavation at Sanford Lab, South Dakota.

Excavation at DUNE’s South Dakota site is nearing completion.Credit: Lynn Johnson, Fermilab

DUNE’s primary goal is to discover whether the neutrino behaves differently from its antimatter mirror image, the antineutrino; if there is a difference, it could have far-reaching consequences for the evolution of the Universe. The project has faced serious setbacks in construction, however, and its price tag has reached US$3.3 billion, roughly doubling its initial estimated cost. To ensure DUNE’s feasibility under a limited budget, researchers have had to make concessions, including reducing the number of argon detector modules from four to three.

With the responsibility of DUNE on its shoulders, Fermilab is the effective centre of US particle physics. Hundreds of scientists work there, and thousands of outside researchers use its facilities. Last December, an influential panel of physicists issued a road map — the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) report — describing the direction they would like their field to take. Fermilab drew special recognition in the report for its leadership in current and future experiments — including a potential collider that smashes together muons, the heavier cousins of electrons.

Access issues

But along with its management woes, questions over access to Fermilab have also dogged the centre. In 2022, after restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic were rolled back at other national labs, Fermilab — which had long been open to the public because of its lack of classified research — kept limitations in place, owing to DoE regulations. Early last year, concerns reached a boiling point: a petition to ‘Reopen Fermilab’ gathered nearly 3,000 signatures and hundreds of testimonials. A graduate student who was living on site and had experienced a medical emergency wrote that her mother was not allowed into the lab to see her because of an expired passport. Even JoAnne Hewett, the director of Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) in Upton, New York, was held at the gate until Merminga called to ensure her access.

The controversy had scientists questioning the lab’s fitness to serve as the US hub for particle physics. “Who would still consider organizing a scientific meeting at a lab where doing so means endless and senseless paperwork for the visitors?” wrote Joachim Kopp, a theorist at CERN, the European particle-physics lab outside Geneva, Switzerland, in a testimonial. At other labs, restrictions might be a mere inconvenience, but “for Fermilab, those changes are existential”, said Fernanda Psihas, a researcher at Fermilab and organizer of the petition.

Last August, in response to the concerns about site access, the Fermilab site office, which manages building and construction projects, underwent an unprecedented review from site office managers at other national labs. Roger Snyder, the manager of Fermilab’s site office, did not respond to Nature’s inquiry about this peer review.

Merminga said at an 11 December town hall that “more work needs to be done”, but added that Fermilab is “turning the corner in this matter, which is essential for world-leading science”. Wilson Hall, the iconic cathedral-like main building on the Fermilab campus, reopened to the public on 23 January. Some of DUNE’s troubles might be resolving as well — the excavation of the South Dakota site is now nearly 99% complete, and the installation of concrete floors there is underway.

Although things have improved for the FRA, there’s no guarantee that it will win its bid for the Fermilab contract. National labs have changed hands before, although it is rare. In 1997, after worries about a radioactive tritium leak and other mishaps at the BNL, Federico Peña, who was then the US secretary of energy, pointed to “long-term mismanagement” at the lab, and terminated the contract with its operator, AUI.

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