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WASHINGTON, D.C.. October 6, 2016 — Soaring prices for liquid helium — a crucial resource for the nation’s health technologies and research enterprise — are putting the U.S. innovation ecosystem at risk, according to a report released today by three leading scientific organizations. To respond, the American Physical Society (APS), American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Materials Research Society (MRS) have launched a first-of-its-kind matchmaking website that informs researchers on how to transition to new, helium-saving technologies. These efforts are sparking policymakers to take action in Washington.
The 23-page report is the product of the three scientific organizations, which collectively represent more than 200,000 scientists and innovators. The report identifies federal steps that are necessary to save entire fields of research that are in peril as helium prices rise. The findings have been shared with members of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, who are taking bipartisan steps to address the situation.
As a complement to the report, a website has been launched to help researches from around the world identify and transition to new technologies that can dramatically reduce their helium usage.
Liquid helium is necessary to operate the more than 11,000 MRI machines vital for life-saving medical diagnostics throughout the country. Additionally, liquid helium enables cutting-edge research that must be conducted at temperatures just above absolute zero (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit). For some researchers, prices for the scarce resource have increased by almost 250% during the past seven years.
“When you confront large helium price increases, it’s hard to adjust on a fixed research budget,” said Sophia E. Hayes, a chemistry professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the report committee. “You have to cover your bills, so you take the money out of your summer salary, and you cut back on the number of graduate students you can hire.”
A primary action needed, according to the report, is to establish a program that ensures the availability of helium to federal end users. In a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Reps. Rob W. Bishop (R-1st-Utah) and Raul Grijalva (D-3rd-AZ), chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Natural Resources Committee, gave BLM the green light to proceed with the rulemaking necessary to establish the royalty “in-kind” program identified in the report.
“By requiring scientists to pay such exorbitant prices for helium, funding is being diverted from other crucial priorities, such as training the next generation of American scientists,” they wrote in the letter. “With the end of the federal helium program only five years away, planning must begin as soon as possible to ensure that federal helium users, including grantees, have access to a stable and reasonably priced supply of helium.”
The report also recommended additional steps that should be taken: The federal government should transition as much of the nation’s liquid-helium-based technologies as possible to those that decrease helium consumption. The Federal Helium Reserve is a source of revenue to enable the transition. Currently, its helium sales generate more than $430,000 in profit per day. Congress could direct a portion of those funds to support technologies that reduce helium consumption. The report identified a final action to address the helium crisis: asking the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget to provide guidance to federal agencies to conserve helium.
The three organizations will work together to advance the policy recommendations in the report and use it to educate members of Congress and their staff on the importance of affordable and available liquid helium.
About the American Physical Society
The American Physical Society is a non-profit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. APS represents over 53,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (Headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, D.C.
About the American Chemical Society
The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With nearly 157,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
About the Materials Research Society
MRS is an international organization of almost 15,000 materials researchers from academia, industry and government, and a recognized leader in promoting the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research and technology to improve the quality of life. MRS members are engaged and enthusiastic professionals hailing from physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and engineering — the full spectrum of materials research. Headquartered in Warrendale, Pennsylvania (USA), MRS membership now spans over 90 countries, with more than 48 percent of members residing outside the United States. In addition to its communications and publications portfolio, MRS organizes high-quality scientific meetings, attracting over 13,000 attendees annually and facilitating interactions among a wide range of experts from the cutting edge of the global materials community. MRS is also a recognized leader in education outreach and advocacy for scientific research. More information about the Materials Research Society can be found on its website.
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The American Physical Society is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world.