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Scientists and the public petition to roll back Fermilab access restrictions.

Scientists and the public petition to roll back Fermilab access restrictions

25 May 2023

Safety and security must be balanced with science and culture, says management.

Inside Fermilab's Wilson Hall.
A photograph taken by a visitor in 2014 of the interior of Wilson Hall, the iconic main building on Fermilab's campus in Batavia, Illinois. Credit: John Kannenberg, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fishing on the 6800-acre grounds of Fermilab is no longer allowed. Viewing the bison and cycling can be done only on the main road. Visiting scientists have been refused entry, and those who do come on-site are now accompanied by an escort in nonpublic areas—even, sometimes, to the bathroom. Employees have found their access to parts of the lab is more restricted than it used to be. What is going on at the US’s premier particle-physics laboratory?

That’s what the more than 2400 scientists and community members who have signed the “Reopen Fermilab” petition want to know. The national laboratory’s new access policies, which took effect around the onset of the pandemic, “are dismantling the very features that have defined Fermilab to the public for decades,” the petition says. Fermilab, about 60 kilometers west of Chicago, has been unique among Department of Energy facilities for its degree of community involvement. But today, the petition says, the lab “is no longer the friendly and welcoming neighbor that this community has long cherished.”

Three particle physicists—Fermilab postdoc Fernanda Psihas along with longtime Fermilab users Justin Vasel, a contractor for the US Air Force, and Rob Fine, who is wrapping up a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory—launched Reopen Fermilab with community input earlier this spring after internal advocacy and contacting elected representatives failed to yield results. The organizers emphasize that they speak for themselves only, not for their employers or affiliated institutions. They plan to send the petition in early June to mayors of local municipalities and several members of Congress, including Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), who used to work at Fermilab.

Fermilab director Lia Merminga says that the main drivers for the tightened access policies are the lab’s changing mission and the need to comply with updated DOE regulations. She points to $5.6 billion in ongoing construction projects, most notably the lab’s top priority, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE; see the article by Anne Heavey, Physics Today, July 2022, page 46). “Our user population is growing,” Merminga says, and the challenge is “to strike the right balance between keeping the traditional openness, ensuring the safety and security of people on site, and being responsible stewards for multibillions of dollars in assets.”

The lab doesn’t host classified research, says Roger Snyder, manager of the DOE site office that oversees Fermilab, but it houses data related to personnel, procurement, intellectual property, export control, and other sensitive materials. “The solution is not perfect, but we need to ensure that the public is always safe,” he says.

Snyder says that “higher beam energies like that expected of the PIP-II proton accelerator,” which will power the DUNE neutrino beam, present new safety challenges. But according to the petition, “there are no dangers associated with visiting the parts of the lab that have previously been accessible to the public.” One active Fermilab user and signatory who requested anonymity says that leaning on PIP-II to tighten restrictions is “complete and total bullshit.” As with any accelerator enclosure, he says, people can enter only with “good reason and proper training. That’s the way it’s always been, and no one is complaining about it.”

A barrier prevents entry to a bike path at Fermilab.
A barrier prevents access to a bike path on the Fermilab campus. Credit: Reopen Fermilab

In the past, anyone could walk or bike through Fermilab’s grounds. Drivers had to show identification when they entered the site. Employees wore badges, and scientists and other visitors could get a badge on the spot. But as of 3 May, all adults entering the grounds must show REAL ID—a driver’s license or other identification that is compliant with Department of Homeland Security requirements. And hosts now must obtain permission ahead of time for areas their visitors want to access.

Gone are the days of checking a driver and waving in the whole car, says Eric Prebys, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and longtime Fermilab user and former employee. In February he had difficulties bringing in a graduate student who had followed the access rules. Prebys contrasts the access procedure at Fermilab with that at SLAC, also a DOE lab, which he found much smoother during a visit in early May.

Access problems go all the way up the chain: JoAnne Hewett, the incoming director of DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, signed the petition and posted on the accompanying testimonial webpage that in mid April she was held at the gate until Merminga made a phone call on her behalf. Three weeks earlier, Hewett was late to a Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5) town hall meeting at Fermilab because she had to wait for a guard to correct the color of her badge. “Why couldn’t they just save my information as a frequent visitor?” she wrote.

The tightened restrictions at Fermilab hurt both science and community relations, the petition says. In the testimonials, writers recall how a childhood visit to Fermilab sparked their interest in a career in physics, how dance classes at the lab were the basis of lifelong friendships, how contractors hired to work on-site these days are refused access, and the like.

As examples of how the new access policies impact science, Psihas points to the ease with which Fermilab scientists used to be able to bring visitors to in-house workshops, how retired Fermilab scientists would come eat at the lab cafeteria and talk shop, and the “waste of many lab scientists’ time” when they were stationed at stairways and elevators during a P5 meeting to make sure visitors stayed in permitted areas.

Although the names of everyone who signed the petition will be delivered to the elected officials, about 500 of the signatories and a quarter of the roughly 200 testimonial writers have chosen to remain anonymous to the public. Psihas says that “putting our names out there didn’t feel safe.” She says she is attaching her name to the petition because when she first visited Fermilab as a student 14 years ago, she “fell in love with Fermilab. And when you love something and it’s made such an impact on your life and career, you have to do what you can to preserve it.”

Psihas and her co-organizers criticize not only the increased restrictions but also how they’ve been communicated. They note that “even for folks in the Fermilab community, it is difficult to understand which activities are presently available to the public.”

“We didn’t communicate well about the need for the access changes,” says Merminga, who posted an open letter addressing the issue on 16 May. And “nobody was around to test drive” the newly written policies because of pandemic restrictions.

Snyder acknowledges hiccups in the implementation of new security policies, but he stands by their necessity “as local implementation of common requirements for all DOE laboratories.” Troubles with deliveries, badges, and some publicly accessible areas will be ironed out, he says.

The on-site cafeteria, bank, and art gallery will reopen as soon as badge readers are installed to separate public from restricted areas, Merminga says. In addition, a streamlined access form is in the making. “There is urgency and focus,” she says.

Merminga points to a new visitor building set to open just outside Fermilab’s gates by early 2025 where the public and scientists will be able to enter without prior vetting. DOE has put $13 million toward that building, badge readers, and other security changes, she says. The agency has also increased annual funding for lab security from $5.2 million in 2017 to $13.9 million this year; the largest increase is for cybersecurity.

“We are committed within DOE requirements to do everything we can to bring our user community and the public back to our lab and to make it easy and worth it to them,” Merminga says. “Be patient. We are working on it.”

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