Science's Superjuggernaut


October 08, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — The saga of the superconducting super collider goes on, providing yet another case of how ravenous financial needs can push science into the swamps of politics. This time, the scope of action has broadened to where the supercollider's backers, short by nearly $2 billion, are desperately inviting Japan to become part owner of the Texas-based facility.

Supported by the Reagan administration, always keen for big research projects, the project's promoters routinely doctored the estimated cost to quiet the fears of other scientists and congressional budget watchers. To deflect the financial threat of the colossal atom smasher, they repeatedly expressed confidence that substantial foreign cost-sharing was in the bag. In 1987, for example, John S. Herrington, then secretary of energy, estimated that foreign contributions would pay for ''a quarter to 50 percent of this project.''

In 1988, the Department of Energy estimated the cost of the supercollider at $5.3 billion. Though spread over a nine-year construction period, the figure was so alarming that the Reagan administration conjured up a soothing financial formula, also endorsed by the Bush administration: One-third of the SSC's costs would have to come from non-federal sources, and the project could not proceed if it cut into the Energy Department's general science budget, which is the mainstay of physics research.

In 1989, Texas won the competition for the SSC with a package that included a $1 billion state contribution. But the project's designers were advising the Energy Department that $5.3 billion wouldn't suffice. The agency asked them to recalculate the bill, but also set up a special in-house team to make an independent cost assessment. The designers came up with a chimerical $8.2 billion. The in-house team said the SSC would cost $11.2 billion. The Energy Department accepted the lower estimate, which mysteriously left out many indispensable items in the project.

With Texas providing $1 billion toward the required one-third non-federal share, the funding was short by $1.7 billion -- which could only come from abroad. But three years of panhandling by government teams in foreign capitals had produced nothing but a commitment by India to provide $50 million in engineering services -- a far from pressing need for the project.

In testimony to increasingly dubious congressmen, the supercollider promoters continued to express high hopes for major foreign help, predicting that foreign purses would open once the project was actually under way. Doubters viewed these assurances as a replay of the venerable Pentagon tactic of advancing a project to the point where it's too late to turn back. The suspicions were supported by the surfacing last May of an internal Energy Department memo concerning money-seeking visits to Europe and Japan. ''As a result of these efforts,'' the memo stated, ''we believe we are unlikely to meet the administration's goal for non-federal participation in the foreseeable future.''

Under the sharing formula, the supercollider is still shy by that $1.7 billion, and the figure is likely to be a good deal more when the final costs are tallied. Where is the money to come from?

Europe, burdened with building its own atom smasher, has been written off, but not so Japan, which the president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, is scheduled to visit October next week. The former Yale physicist is carrying an offer that he hopes the Japanese will find too good to refuse: ''We're going to ask them to become part owners of the accelerator,'' Dr. Bromley said in a recent interview. As part owners, he said, the Japanese would accept partial responsibility for supporting the supercollider. In return, they would be in a privileged position for using the facility, ahead of other foreign research groups, which customarily buy time on big, unique scientific machines.

Dr. Bromley said he hoped that a Japanese ownership share in the SSC would set a precedent for financing ''big science.'' He noted that the traditional American practice is to plan and start to build a research facility and then we say, ''OK, why don't you come and join and help us with this? That's not a truly international operation.''

So far, the superconducting supercollider has bulldozed on, backed by Texas political influence and the buddy-building tactic of spreading contracts for parts and services throughout the country. Candor and accuracy have been trampled in the process. And now the SSC is coming hat in hand to a nation with a limited tradition of disinterested philanthropy.

When billions are involved, perhaps there's no other way, but perhaps we should light a few candles for the soul of science in the era of mega-buck projects.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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