IN THE National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) Statement No. 12, issued on 17 December 2015, the findings of the “Where are the Radiation Professions (WARP)” study were reported (NCRP 2015). That statement concluded that the impending shortage of radiation professionals represents a serious threat to the United States in that the scientific leadership in radiation protection is being lost, the ability to compete in world markets is threatened, and the protection of the citizens and country would be diminished. Among the suggested actions that NCRP recommended to prevent this impending problem, which have particular relevance to the topic addressed in this paper, were the restoration of significant federal and state funding for scholarships, fellowships, and faculty research. In addition, NCRP called for the reinvigoration of partnerships among universities, government, and the private sector to ensure that undergraduate and graduate programs are adequately resourced to support the training and qualification of radiation professionals. The discussion that follows reflects the opinion of the author and mainly addresses a major research university perspective.
THE CRISIS IN RADIATION PROTECTION
A perusal of the websites of national laboratories quickly indicates that historically well-known radiation protection research groups have largely been disbanded or dramatically reduced in size and that there is an extremely low level of funding for radiation protection research available for academic research programs and national laboratories. Perhaps all is known that needs to be known, and the conservative overestimation of doses is acceptable, at least as long as regulatory dose limits are not lowered. Also, the trend in the country is moving toward the elimination of health physics and radiation protection programs at “major” research universities, and all research universities aspire to be a major research university. Less of an impact is observed at 2-y and 4-y degree schools, colleges, and universities where teaching is still the measure of success.
At research universities, the 20th century business plan has largely been displaced by a different model, which is demonstrated by a typical distribution of university revenue as shown in Fig. 1. Since the percentage of state support to the public university operation continues to decrease, the revenue streams to meet the operating shortfall are tuition (driven by student contact hours) and research funding. Families with children presently in such universities are keenly aware of this as the tuition continues to increase yearly. Health physics and radiation protection programs have historically small enrollment compared to most other disciplines and are generally delivered by rather small numbers of faculty members. In the past century, these programs could survive by demonstrating that they were meeting a regional or national need. However, the value of an academic program is now driven by the number of student contact hours and amount of research funding or a combination of the two. As current faculty members enter retirement, it will be difficult to preserve programs that do not have large numbers of students enrolled or strong faculty research funding. “Publish or perish” has always been a mantra at research universities, but now faculty members in engineering with less than $300,000–$400,000 per year in research expenditures are considered as substandard performers. Currently there are not significant levels of sustainable research funding levels available for health physics and radiation protection faculty members. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has the Nuclear Energy University Program, but it provides no radiation protection research funding, although radiation protection programs have benefited by the Program’s infrastructure grants and scholarships. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has funding for education and scholarships but does not have a true research program for principally funding academic institutions.
Degree programs at 4-y colleges and universities with a primary mission of teaching have encountered similar challenges. They have experienced a decreasing percentage of their operating budgets from state appropriations and subsequently an increasing percentage from student tuition. Health physics programs at such institutions also face increasing competition from other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines for students and have found that scholarship money is not proving to be a sufficient incentive to bring students into radiation protection programs. Furthermore, the students want to know with confidence that there will be employment in the field and that internships exist for them now. This is compounded by a significant portion of industry not currently being aggressive in their hiring practices at entry levels.
Whereas at one time, several national laboratories had sizable efforts in radiation protection research that were funded more broadly to do scientific research, they now largely work on specific short-term contracted tasks for federal agencies, and the laboratory business plans require that every hour a scientist works be billable to a project. In addition, the overhead costs have increased dramatically so that it takes on the order of $400,000+ per year to support a scientist. Radiation protection researchers have retired and have not been replaced at many national laboratories due to the low amount of funding available to support the scientists. Some scientists have retired sooner than they wanted because they can no longer cover their salaries through funded projects. Others have migrated into various other divisions at their laboratories, leaving behind no focused radiation protection research group. As such, the nation is on the verge of losing the storehouse of radiation protection knowledge and capabilities that has been resident in and sustained by the national laboratories.
A CONSORTIUM SOLUTION
In light of the recognition of a national need to maintain radiation protection research capabilities, the Center for Radiation Protection Knowledge (CRPK) was established by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2010 by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The MOU was renewed in 2015, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added their signature to it (CRPK 2016). The MOU states that the CRPK serves as a common resource to assist the participating agencies in the development and application of radiation dosimetry and risk assessment methodologies based on best available scientific information. The creation of the CRPK was intended to help preserve U.S. expertise in radiation dosimetry and ensure that federal radiation programs are based on the best information available. The MOU does not commit any of the signers to fund the Center. The CRPK MOU says little about the structure of the CRPK and how it will function.
One option to address the challenges in radiation protection education and research is to create a federally funded university and national laboratory consortium, referred to in this paper as the Consortium for the Advancement of Radiation Protection. The CRPK or a similar organization could be used as a focal point for rebuilding the radiation protection education, training, and research efforts in the United States by forming a consortium of universities, national laboratories, industries, utilities, and nonprofit organizations. Such a consortium could serve as a launching platform to provide the critical human resource and knowledge needs in radiation protection for the future and present radiation protection challenges. This consortium would bring together the radiation protection research community remaining within the laboratory complex to engage in research and development and to participate in the training of the next generation of radiation protection professionals at all levels. Such a consortium could bring together the strengths of different university and laboratory programs in a strategic manner to accomplish a multifaceted research, educational, and training agenda.
If properly developed and organized, the consortium could provide educational and training experiences for undergraduate students through an internship program, short-term research experiences for graduate students, thesis and dissertation topics for graduate research assistants, developmental experiences and research funding for faculty members, and a coordinated post-doctoral program. The end product of such a consortium would supply properly trained human capital to meet the impending shortage of radiation safety professionals cited by NCRP (2015). Such efforts, if carried out using the CRPK as the launching platform, would mirror the ORNL mission of invigorating science through graduate and post-graduate research and education.
The starting point for such activities would be to forge a working relationship between several major research universities, 4-y academic programs, and national laboratories to form a consortium. Such a consortium would be similar to DOE-funded innovation hubs now in existence [e.g., the Consortium for the Advancement of Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL 2016)]. However, this concept would incorporate a greater educational and training mission than the existing research hub and be more akin to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development consortium program to develop the next generation of leaders with practical experience in technical fields relevant to nuclear nonproliferation (CNEC 2016; CVT 2016; NSSC 2016). Both the NNSA consortia and DOE innovation hubs are funded for 5 y with the potential to renew every 5 y.
The concept would be to develop an agenda that is truly research and education driven and at a minimum provide the following three activities:
- summer undergraduate and graduate student intern programs for either research or operational radiation protection experience;
- a practicum program where new hires by DOE, their laboratories, and/or other federal agencies’ physicists perform rotations at several facilities; and
- a research hub for distributing funding for university and national laboratory research that advances the state of radiation protection knowledge and methods.
Such a consortium would be housed at a laboratory with a senior leadership team consisting of university faculty and national laboratory scientists. Radiation protection focus areas including research, training, and educational components would be developed. Funding would be distributed to consortium members to address areas of interest and needs developed by the consortium in conjunction with a scientific advisory council consisting of distinguished members of the radiation protection community with input from federal agencies. A board of directors would be formed from members of the consortium, and an annual meeting consisting of presentations by the members of the consortium would be held.
It is now an opportune time to initiate a consortium of national laboratories, universities and training groups to address the needs in radiation protection of the community in both research and human resource development. Doing so will require finding a federal agency or agencies with the vision to champion such a consortium. The consortium would not carry out research currently contracted as specific tasks for federal agencies but would strive to work on more long-term research topics and provide education and training to fill the radiation safety human resource pipeline.
Notice: This manuscript has been authored by UT-Battelle, LLC, under Contract No. DE-AC0500OR22725 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The United States Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the United States Government retains a nonexclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, world-wide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this manuscript, or allow others to do so, for the United States Government purposes. DOE will provide public access to these results of federally sponsored research in accordance with the DOE Public Access Plan (http://energy.gov/downloads/doe-public-access-plan).
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