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US backs nuclear fusion over particle smashing

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Making clean energy by nuclear fusion and building supercomputers to speed up scientific research are the top priorities in physical science, according to a new US Department of Energy road map.

Other major projects given a top ranking include designing microbes to scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and the search for the mysterious dark energy that is driving the expansion of the Universe.

However, high energy physics (HEP) experiments that smash particles together did not fare so well in the 20-year plan announced on Monday. HEP experiments could one day unite quantum mechanics and general relativity, and explain why our Universe has mass.

But the Linear Collider, described as "the next big step" in the field, was ranked only 13 in a list of 28 priority facilities. Furthermore, three projects that a HEP task force ranked as "absolutely central" in March did not make the list at all.

"The Linear Collider is down lower than most might have expected," says Ernest Moniz, physics professor at MIT and former Undersecretary at the DoE. "Scientists are hoping that this is purely a timescale factor, although it is clearly disappointing not to be higher up on the list."

Big spender

The DoE is the US's biggest funding body for research in the physical sciences, mathematics and computing, with an annual budget of $3 billion. But over the last two decades spending on these areas has stagnated, while money for biology and space research has increased.

In response, the DoE set up six physical science "task forces" in 2002 to determine where funding for major facilities would be best spent. Over 50 projects made the final shortlist, and the DoE then selected the top 28.

Twelve were given top billing as "near-term priorities", eight as mid-term and eight as far-term. The roadmap does not address funding levels, but provides a guide for how money will be distributed. "This list is the best thinking as of now, but it will be re-examined as we progress," said Ray Orbach the director of the Office of Science at the DoE.

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