Director's Corner

20 April 2006

Barry Barish
A BIG MAC Report

Peer review has become a cornerstone of modern science assessments, scientific journal publishing, funding decisons and academic promotions. We actually instituted peer review early in the Global Design Effort when I asked three prominent accelerator physicists from outside our organization to review the baseline configuration before we approved it at Frascati last fall. That committee consisted of Burt Richter (SLAC, Stanford), Lenny Rivkin (PSI, Switzerland) and Katsunobu Oide (KEK, Japan). They each sent us their assessments in individual letter form, and we posted those letters and our responses on the BCD Web pages. We affectionately dubbed that group our “mini-MAC” for Mini Machine Advisory Committee.

Although peer review, in some sense, goes back centuries, it only became an established cornerstone of our academic system during the 20 th century. In fact, many famous papers, such as Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis,” were not peer reviewed. It is now deeply built into our ability to insure quality standards, to make scientific or funding choices and to provide critiques. Traditionally, it has been done by individual anonymous peer reviewers. While for large complex projects, such as the International Linear Colider, it will be done by an open committee of peers, who will make a joint assessment and report. Sometimes it is amazing that this system works so well. Having been on a number of peer review panels myself, I know that no one gets any smarter by becoming a peer reviewer. The reviewer is typically no smarter and possibly less knowledgeable about the particular subject than the scientists being reviewed. Yet, peer review works because fresh objective eyes are often very useful, and we accept peer review for what it is -- a system that can be very useful but has flaws. We might want to challenge some conclusions, but overall it is a very effective way to obtain objective judgments and advice.

The GDE has its own peer review in the form of an official Machine Advisory Committee, consisting of 17 members. They met for the first time at Fermilab on 6-7 April, and the chairman, Ferdi Willeke, will report to the International Linear Collider Steering Committee (ILCSC) on 8 May. The committee’s report has just been submitted to the ILCSC. This BIG MAC committee is comprised of a very experienced and distinguished group of mostly accelerator physicists, who are capable of making assessments of our work and providing some insightful recommendations.

Overall the report is very supportive. For our baseline choices, they conclude: “The GDE has demonstrated a reasonable balance between forward-looking and pragmatism, driven by the need to provide a first credible cost estimate in the near future, and a moderate optimism by leaving room for innovative solutions.” The report also identifies areas of concern, including whether our choice of gradient can be adequately defended. Despite this concern, they note that it “does not appear at this point as an unreasonable long-term goal.” The committee strongly concludes that “a very aggressive, world-wide, well-coordinated, R&D program is necessary to defend the case of an accelerating gradient as large as 35 MV/m.” They advocate that this program be given very high priority.

We will carefully study the report and will respond to it in detail. There are no big surprises, but they do highlight some areas in which we need to concentrate harder – very useful feedback indeed. We might not agree on all of their recommendations, but we will need to carefully study all of the suggestions and evaluate them. Finally, due to the short meeting, brief presentations and the fact that the reviewers really aren’t any smarter than us, in my opinion, they are a bit “off-base” on a few of their conclusions or recommendations.


MAC Report (pdf)