General Assessment of the NIST Center for Neutron Research
The execution of the overall NIST mission—to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life—is enabled in important ways by the unique capabilities and facilities of the NIST Center for Neutron Research.
Through its suite of instruments—among the best in the world—for neutron scattering and fundamental neutron science, coupled with a strong staff of scientists and technicians who lead their own research programs and support those of hundreds of users both within and outside of NIST each year, the NCNR has a firm place in advancing the NIST mission. The NCNR continues to succeed admirably in this regard. There are, however, both unprecedented challenges and opportunities currently facing the center.
First, the Expansion Project promises to advance the center’s capabilities significantly in both the quantity and the quality of its instrumentation and in the size and scope of the user community to be served. The project has been carefully planned, and its management appears to be in good hands and on track. However, the timing of its implementation was recently delayed by about a year, owing to a procurement failure. The potentially serious negative impact that might have ensued can become a positive impact: the timely development of a new instrument (the Multi-axis Crystal Spectrometer), which advances the state of the art significantly for inelastic scattering, will have time to “mine” substantial new science before the new, April 2011 start date for the shutdown. There remain challenges associated with the shutdown that would occur regardless of its timing, but these will be easier to address given the additional time resulting from the delay. These challenges include coordinating with other neutron facilities to provide access to current NIST users, thoughtful and careful use of staff resources during the outage, and the building of stronger interactions within NIST and with the soft-matter and biological communities outside of NIST. The NCNR should use the additional time to pursue these opportunities.
Second, an opportunity lies in better utilization of existing expertise and capabilities at NIST to enhance the research productivity and impact of the NCNR, particularly through increased collaborations with NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology and Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory. As these centers focus on the nanoscale and the chemical-biological arenas, respectively, they could and should provide additional interfaces for the NCNR to enhance its impact both inside and outside NIST. Similar opportunities might materialize for software and theory more generally.
On the national neutron landscape of today and in the near future, the NCNR is the leading U.S. facility. The Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) and the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will begin to compete for this leadership role in 2 to 3 years. However, by 2015 (after the new instruments in the Guide Hall extension will have been commissioned, the spin echo spectrometer will have been upgraded and relocated to the Guide Hall extension, and
other instruments currently under development will have been installed in the original Guide Hall), the NCNR will gain an additional cushion until the SNS Second Target Station instruments come online in 2018. The future enhancements of the Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE), adding roughly two times the capacity and new capability, should be viewed as complementing NCNR’s instrumentation strategy. To take one example, the Chromatic Analysis Neutron Diffractometer or Reflectometer (CANDoR) at the NCNR will provide crucial experience with multiwavelength reflectometry below reflectivities of 10−8 to complement the inherently multiwavelength time-of-flight instruments at the SNS and LANSCE. The United States will have then a healthy mix (though too few) of horizontal and vertical neutron reflectometers for meeting the needs in biophysics, soft condensed matter, and energy research.
On the international landscape, the general consensus of the panel is that the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL) in France is the leading facility. After the NCNR expansion, if the ILL were to do nothing further to enhance its position, the NCNR could challenge and even overtake the ILL in importance by 2015. The ISIS Spallation Neutron Source in England, with its new second target, will similarly raise the bar, and any further delay in NCNR expansion could shift leadership. However, on present trajectories, the ILL-NCNR-ISIS hierarchy is stable until the SNS and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex are mature in 10 years or so. The Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, Forschungsreaktor München II research reactor in Germany, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), HFIR, the Laboratoire Léon Brillouin (LLB) in France, LANSCE, and others will provide pressure from the next tier, and the NCNR must continually work to maintain its position. In particular, the ANSTO aspires to be number three among reactor sources, and its aggressive operating schedule of 340 days per year, if achieved, will be hard to match. The fact that NCNR management anticipates that the scientific and technical research services funds for the Expansion Project will continue beyond the time line of the project and be used for continual instrumentation renewal is welcome in this regard. In addition, the NCNR should target areas of strength in which it can have leadership despite the existence of higher-flux facilities that exist now or will be coming online in the future.
These impressions of NCNR’s position are based on user metrics (numbers of users and user hours per year), number and quality of publications, and innovative instrumentation science, but the facilities comparison is not precise. In carefully considering the first element of its charge, the panel determined that the level of comparison that it used (as described) is sufficient for providing a good indication of the NCNR’s position in the broader community. The panel did not think that it should perform an assessment of the capabilities of other facilities, or that a more detailed and exhaustive comparison of additional metrics was necessary. Although a precise comparison of U.S. facilities is challenging, the NCNR is currently in a strong position to carry the North American flag with respect to numbers of users and publications, whereas instrumentation innovation has been pushed mainly by European facilities. This playing field will tilt even more as the European Spallation Source project flourishes over the next 5 years. The U.S. neutron community including the NCNR must invest increasingly more resources in cutting-edge instrumentation to stay even.
Operational reliability is outstanding at the NCNR. On a per flux basis, the NCNR is competitive with the best neutron facilities in the world, considering
publications and “high-impact journal” results. Given the wide scientific footprint of the NCNR, a broadening of the definition for “high-impact journals” would be appropriate, and this could help quantify metrics more precisely. Competitor sources in the Department of Energy broadly acknowledge NCNR’s lead in user numbers, and European Union sources graciously salute NCNR’s high-impact publications. Demographically, the NCNR—like all scattering facilities—exhibits a regional impact distribution and, given the intellectual richness of the eastern seaboard, this regionality is a considerable strength.
The NCNR instrument suite is well matched to future needs in materials and low-energy nuclear research. In particular, the facility management is anticipating a shift toward energy materials research; the NCNR should monitor national directions in this area, including materials for nuclear power, to ensure that the suite of instruments continues to evolve to meet national needs.