What does it take to be the No. 1-ranked nuclear physics graduate program in the country? As it turns out, a whole lot of help and no small measure of serendipity. In June 2008 the Office of Nuclear Physics (NP), Office of Science (SC), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made an exciting announcement:
“Now receiving pre-applications for developing outstanding scientific opportunities in nuclear structure and dynamics, nuclear astrophysics, and tests of fundamental interactions and symmetries at leading rare isotope beam (RIB) facilities around the world.
“The mission of the NP program is to enable fundamental research in nuclear physics that will advance our knowledge of the nature of matter and energy, and develop the needed technologies and workforce. While the U.S. is planning for a national facility for rare isotope beams (FRIB) in the latter part of the next decade, it is crucial for U.S. scientists to maintain leadership in the field. To that end, the Office of Nuclear Physics intends to provide funding for the U.S. nuclear physics research community to play a prominent role in developing outstanding research opportunities in nuclear structure and dynamics, nuclear astrophysics, and tests of fundamental interactions and symmetries at leading RIB facilities currently operating, being upgraded or being constructed around the world. The capabilities at these facilities will provide unique opportunities for U.S. nuclear physics researchers to stay engaged at the forefront of the field, both scientifically and technologically, including opportunities for research collaboration, accelerator research and development activities, and fabrication of accelerator components or scientific instrumentation. The Office of Nuclear Physics envisions multi-year funding for one or more proposals with relevance for the planned U.S. RIB facility.”
The future facility would offer, for the first time, the capability to produce most of the same rare isotopes that are created in the thermonuclear explosions of supernovae, which then decay into the elements found on Earth. The hopes for a facility with this capability centered on better understanding the origins of the elements. The same isotopes are needed to develop a comprehensive model of atomic nuclei and how they interact. Researchers would be able to improve our understanding of how atomic nuclei may be used to diagnose and cure diseases. Improved nuclear models and precision data would allow optimization of the next generation of nuclear reactors and evaluation of techniques to destroy nuclear waste. Modeling atomic nuclei and their interactions—a challenging problem in science—can also help lead to breakthroughs in security, the environment, high energy physics, nanoscience, and more. Many time-honored and newly-conceived institutions submitted pre-applications in response to the DOE’s Funding Opportunity Announcement. A handful were invited to submit formal applications later that year for the opportunity to house and manage the facility. But only one could be chosen.
The DOE announced on 11 December 2008 that Michigan State University (MSU) had been selected to design and establish the FRIB.
The new facility was expected to take about a decade to design and build and to cost an estimated $550 million. It would a be hub for providing research opportunities for an international community of approximately 1,000 university and laboratory scientists, postdoctoral associates, and graduate students.
“The Department of Energy’s new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University promises to vastly expand our understanding of nuclear astrophysics and nuclear structure,” said Acting Associate Director of the Office of Science for Nuclear Physics Eugene Henry. “This capability will allow physicists to study the nuclear reactions that power stars and stellar explosions, explore the structure of the nuclei of atoms and the forces that bind them together, test current theories about the fundamental nature of matter, and play a role in developing new nuclear medicines and techniques.”
And now MSU, as the winning candidate for the program funding, would not only have to meet federal budget standards, but they would also be subject to a cooperative agreement between MSU and the DOE, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of the proposed site, and renewed funding dependent on annual appropriations by Congress.
Significant factors that made MSU stand out included the fact that the university was already home to the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) whose staff were qualified to oversee development of FRIB. MSU also pledged its own financial support and parlayed funding from the state after demonstrating that the years-long construction phases for the project and eventual years of active operations would significantly benefit Michigan’s economy. To calculate the extent of that economic benefit, MSU employed the help of the Anderson Economic Group (AEG).
AEG translated the details of FRIB’s construction and operations into economic inputs and used IMPLAN’s software and data to calculate the potential economic benefits in terms of state and federal taxes, jobs, and employee earnings. As part of MSU’s initial project application, AEG carefully noted what materials and services could be sourced from in-state suppliers and what parts of the construction phases would have to rely on out-of-state sources. Whenever possible, the construction would rely on in-state resources to drive the local economy. Altogether, the economic impact would be significant.
“Our analysis concluded that the FRIB project is a rare opportunity for the State of Michigan to lock in a very large stream of future earnings and anchor a high-tech center. We estimated that the total economic activity associated with the FRIB will exceed $1 billion over the initial decade. We also confirmed that new tax revenue the state would earn on construction and operation of the FRIB over a twenty year period is over $187 million” (AEG, December 2008).
AEG also estimated that the FRIB would increase tax revenue to the state of Michigan. During the eight year design and construction period, state tax revenue would increase by a total of $36.2 million. “This is a great day for science,” said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “We are grateful to the Department of Energy’s commitment to address this critical priority for the nation’s physical sciences research infrastructure, and we are proud to have been selected as a partner. We are deeply dedicated to working with the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to develop an exceptional user facility serving the needs of national and international scientists. This is the first step on the journey.”
A New Analytical Issue
The next step in the journey would be designing and building the facility.
Final design of the FRIB conventional facilities—the tunnel and support buildings—was completed in March 2014 as well as pre-construction site preparation and installation of pilings for an earth-retention system. Final design of the technical systems would be completed by the end of 2014 with the collaboration of national laboratories as part of a research and development phase. Project completion is expected in 2022, although by current estimates FRIB may be fully operational by 2020.
Each of the design and construction phases with their reliance on expertise and materials from both in and out of state presented a new challenge in tracking the economic benefits which FRIB was certainly bringing to the state and nation.
First, there was the question of how to capture granular economic impact results in a large region. As the state economy grew and changed from year to year over the course of the project, so too would the descriptive data used to calculate the economic benefits. Eventually, MSU would need to repeat the initial economic impact analysis using fresh data in order to accurately report on whether the state and local government’s investments were meaningfully contributing to the economy (and justify, from a fiduciary perspective, the ongoing federal financial support of the program).
Second, although the initial study fully answered the question of what the economic impact would be to the state, there was stirring curiosity over where in Michigan that money actually went once spent. Direct expenditures related to construction or wages for people in FRIB’s employ were easily ledgered and largely spent in MSU’s hometown of Lansing. But no one could say for certain where the indirect or induced economic effects were distributed throughout the state.
When the time came to repeat the analysis in 2017, Steven R. Miller and John Whims from MSU’s Product Center Food–Ag–Bio Center for Economic Analysis rose to the occasion. This time, the economic impact analysis took a look back at the values of allocated expenditures since the DOE’s approval of the FRIB and were used to estimate the actual economic impacts between fiscal years 2009 and 2015. Then it projected expenditures from fiscal years 2016 to 2040 to look at the future state of the project’s lifespan.
The Goldilocks Zone
MSU knew that constraining the new economic impact analysis to the state of Michigan as a whole would produce sound but broad results similar in nature to those of the original study. But simply subdividing the state into regions or counties and running individual impact analyses in each region would not account for economic leakages from those regions to their neighbors. In a single-region analysis, leakages (i.e., imports from outside the region) are simply lost. For example, importing 75% of commodity A means that 75% of the value of commodity A is lost in the first round of the impact analysis. But in reality, that 75% goes to some economy somewhere.
To address this issue of inter-regional trade, Miller and Whims used an analytical technique known in the economic world as Multi-Regional Input-Output (MRIO) analysis. By incorporating inter-regional commodity trade and commuting data, this technique allows you to see if and how your impact in the core region is affecting surrounding regions, and in turn, how those indirect and induced impacts in surrounding regions may generate additional feedback effects to the core region.
In addition to allowing MRIO analysis among linked models, single-region models also benefit from IMPLAN’s commodity trade and commuting data, which affect all models’ Regional Purchasing Coefficients (RPCs) and net commuting rates. The commodity trade flows are calculated using a gravity model which allows for cross-hauling and takes into account relative supplies and demands of each commodity in each county, along with the cost of transporting goods and services between each county (taking into account tolls, traffic, geographic barriers, etc.).
Impact estimates were created for two phases of the FRIB.
The first is a construction phase (fiscal years 2009-2021) for the installation of the new facilities, while the second is for the operational phase (fiscal years 2021-2040). The geographic and sector allocations of construction expenditure projections from fiscal year 2016 to 2021 were based on data from historical distributions which were collected from the FRIB management team, from the MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF), and from the MSU Office of Planning and Budget for payroll expenditures, material purchases and the acquisition of services, up to the end of fiscal year 2015.
Expenditures were allocated to 14 regions making up the state of Michigan and trade flows across the 14 regions were used to estimate region-specific impacts. The geographic distribution of impacts was based on the 14 regions defined by MSU Extension Services. These regions do not represent distinct regional groupings of economic activities or demographics, but rather reflect a regional detail used by MSU Extension in administering Extension programs and are used by the MI Spartan Impact reporting system—a system which MSU relies on to calculate the economic impacts of its other programs.
“It’s hardly necessary that every state or public investment make a payback, but this is one of those cases where the state investment in this project actually returns more to the state government in actuated cost,” Miller said. “It’s generating $205 million in tax revenues over the course of the 32 years versus the $95 million that went into it.”
One of the ways jobs and advancements are affected by MSU’s FRIB is in medical applications, for example MRI technology that would otherwise not be possible without public investment.
“There was one application with the cyclotron that those isotopes actually go into a process that is used in medicine,” Miller said. “And that’s one of the key areas where we would see the commercialization of the outcome from the FRIB. Other areas are possible, the sky is the limit.”
Ultimately, FRIB’s economic impact would have been significant no matter where the facility might be constructed. But the fact that MSU used its economic impact analyses to express the potential for significant economic benefits to both the nation, state, and extension regions demonstrates the persuasive power that numbers bring to the table. And not all beneficial impacts were solely economic.
“FRIB is the cornerstone of our drive to strengthen and diversify Michigan’s economy by investing in cutting-edge research, and to train the next generation of science leaders,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said. “The nation’s No. 1-ranked nuclear physics graduate program is here already, educating about 10 percent of the nation’s nuclear science Ph.D.s.”
FRIB amplified MSU’s technical dominance in multiple academic fields and attracted new and diverse industries and students to the state. As FRIB’s technological advances increase, so too will the stature and economy of Michigan and the U.S.—and together they will achieve the DOE’s original goal of staying “engaged at the forefront of the field.”