Written by Emily McGuire


Dr. Gary Zank, director of The University of Alabama (UAH) Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and CPU2AL, and Dr. Edward Thomas, Jr., Professor and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at Auburn University as well as CPU2AL co-PI, were selected by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) to participate in the Decadal Assessment of Plasma Science.

Dr. Zank was named to co-chair the Decadal Survey committee performing the survey along with Dr. Mark Kushner, director of the Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering (MIPSE) and of the DOE Plasma Science Center at the University of Michigan. “Our responsibility as co-chairs is to ensure that the broad spectrum of plasma science is evaluated, emerging new plasma science assessed, and future directions anticipated for the coming decade. The committee’s responsibility is to help put all of that together,” says Dr. Zank.

Dr. Ed Thomas serves as a committee member and is helping to contribute to the report in the areas of basic plasmas, low-temperature plasmas and fusion plasmas. “At this stage, we've now gathered a lot of information from the plasma physics community and are beginning the process of reviewing that material and beginning to write the first draft of the report,” says Dr. Thomas.

“The decadal is very high-level and something that's obviously very important to the community, and so the people that are typically asked to serve on that committee are very well known in the research community and the plasma physics community,” says Dr. Zank. “The fact that we've got two members from CPU2AL is, I think, an indication of the level at which the EPSCoR program CPU2AL is operating, so it's nice recognition in terms of our status as a plasma program and puts Alabama a little bit on the map.”

This comprehensive survey is conducted by the NAS every ten years and is intended “to synthesize the progress that has been made in the past decade and then look forward to what you anticipate happening in the next decade,” says Dr. Zank. It will be used by Congress as well as the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Office of Naval Research to determine funding priorities for the next decade.

The turnaround time for the assessment is short, requiring the co-chairs and committee to remain focused on the synthesis of the white papers received and writing the report, which is due in February of 2020. Dr. Zank and Dr. Thomas expressed that between the community engagement, attending meetings, and writing the report, it has been a time-consuming task, but that doesn’t influence their excitement to be involved in it.

Working on the decadal “gives you an opportunity to take a step back and look at an entire scientific field so to speak. There's really fascinating work that's going on broadly across many different areas, and that has been educational and eye-opening, and it has been fun to hear other plasma scientists get excited about the work that they're doing!” says Dr. Thomas.

For Dr. Zank, the future of space and astrophysical plasma and the computational aspect of plasma physics are interesting areas to be examined in the assessment. Both areas are likely to provide some fascinating insights in the next 10 years as technologies are developed to allow for space exploration and significant computing capabilities to study plasma previously unavailable.

Dr. Thomas identified two ways that their involvement in the decadal survey has complemented the work being done through CPU2AL:

  • “It puts the work that we're doing within the CPU2AL project in context; because this project has a research focus on low temperature plasmas that includes laboratory space, industrial applications, etc., and you can see how the work that we're doing here in Alabama is broadly connected to this larger community of work that is going on in the rest of the country and around the rest of the world.
  • It's providing an opportunity to see the very high-level questions that people in different areas of plasma physics research are asking, and it gives us the opportunity to be able (when the report comes out) to see how we can eventually align ourselves to some of those directions.”

Following the release of the decadal assessment, Dr. Zank and co-chair Dr. Mark Kushner will be presenting it to the sponsors, Congress, and plasma research community, i.e., “stakeholders in government, the plasma sciences communities, and industry … sharing perspectives on the major achievements and challenges of the past decade and the most exciting and promising areas of plasma research anticipated for the next 10 years, as well as how plasma research impacts and is impacted by adjacent areas of science and technology,” as stated on the NAS website. Dr. Zank noted that the survey is used as a blueprint for the next decade and will help shape the future of plasma science in the nation.