February 21, 2006

U of C to co-head Fermilab as Argonne bidding continues

Academic consortium Universities Research Association (URA), the current steward of national research laboratory Fermilab, has asked the University to co-manage the $300-million-a-year lab.

The pairing comes amid a competitive bidding process to manage several national laboratories, including Argonne, which the University oversees. The University will collaborate with URA to submit a management proposal for Fermilab, located 35 miles west of the Loop.

Meanwhile, the University is preparing a separate proposal to keep management privileges for Argonne, the $500-million-a-year lab 25 miles southwest of the Loop. The University’s contract to manage Argonne expires September 30, 2006.

The URA partnership boosts the University’s reputation for management operations and may strengthen its case to keep control of Argonne.

“Our reaching out to the University of Chicago is clearly a vote of confidence,” said URA spokesman Ezra Heitowit. “Does that influence their chances [of winning the Argonne contract]? I don’t know.”

URA selected the University because of its strong reputation for large-scale management, Heitowit said. He cited the University’s oversight of Argonne and the University of Chicago Hospitals’ strong reputation.

The University’s familiarity with Fermilab contributed to URA’s decision. University researchers have used the lab “since it was created,” Heitowit said. “We know the University of Chicago. We have a very close relationship.”

Fermilab, built in 1967, focuses on research into matter, energy, time, and space. It employs 2,000 and draws an additional 3,000 visiting scientists from 31 countries.

URA, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1965 following the recommendation of President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee and the National Academy of Sciences.

The University embraced the URA’s offer. Thomas Rosenbaum, the University vice president for Argonne, said the URA helps attract leading scientists worldwide to work at Fermilab.

Heitowit said the precise management relationship between URA and the University has not yet been ironed out. He said the two organizations would have “reasonably equal” shares of control over the lab.

URA and University officials emphasized the possibility for research collaboration, noting that Argonne and Fermilab each have particle accelerators among the world’s most state-of-the-art.

Fermilab houses the Tevatron, the world’s highest energy particle accelerator. Fermilab wants to be the site of a world-class electron-positrion collider. If built, the proposed International Linear Collider (ILC) would rival the world’s largest particle physics center, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which is located on the border between France and Switzerland.

Argonne, meanwhile, hosts the Argonne Tandem-Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS), the linear accelerator for heavy ions. Argonne has proposed to build the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA), which would be the world’s most powerful tool for exploring isotopes not normally found on earth.

“That’s a big undertaking, and Argonne would gain by having Fermilab’s expertise in accelerator technology,” Heitowit said. “When you combine the two labs, that’s a pretty potent pool of expertise.”

Rosenbaum said the management partnership supports Fermilab’s campaign for the ILC and Argonne’s bid for the RIA.

Researchers from the two labs would combine work on accelerator science, particle physics, astrophysics, theory, computation, and detector instrumentation, Rosenbaum said.

“Strong leadership and a shared interest in supporting outstanding science will be the most important determinants of our success,” he said.

The University’s prospects for keeping Argonne management rights look bright: The University was the only major research institution or large corporation in attendance at a January 26 workshop for potential bidders, according to Department of Energy (DOE) documents. In particular, Battelle, a nonprofit group that manages five national labs and has been considered a possible competitor, was not in attendance.

Jacobs Engineering Group, the University’s principal partner enlisted to help manage Argonne, and BWX Technologies, another of the University’s Argonne partners, did attend.

Asked about the lack of competitors at the workshop, Rosenbaum said, “We are working harder than ever to prepare a proposal that will exceed DOE’s expectations.”

URA’s contract to manage Fermilab expires at the end of the 2006 calendar year.

URA is “reasonably confident” that the University and URA will win the Fermilab contract, Heitowit said. That contract is expected to run at least through 2011.