WASHINGTON. — While the big New World Order is gestating, progress toward a mini-version is taking place in the realm of science. The focus is on international sharing in the costs of what scientists call mega-projects, a growing burden on the American research enterprise, as well as a problem for science in other countries.
Mega-projects are conspicuous, multi-billion-dollar ventures, typically for working in space or deep inside the atom. In the American context, their visibility and glamour easily translate into broad political support. Once under way, however, their costs almost invariably mushroom beyond the original estimates. The ensuing budget crises are usually resolved by snitching money from important but politically weak small science projects.
The United States is the great impresario of mega-projects, prominent among them the space shuttle, the space station, and the Superconducting Super Collider atom smasher. But with the federal purse grievously pinched these days, necessity has aroused interest in a cosmopolitan approach to science finance, among White House science planners and many others.
Last month, at the suggestion of presidential science adviser D. Allan Bromley, the top science officials of the 24 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development discussed sharing the costs of future mega-projects.
The meeting, the first held by these officials since 1987, agreed to an important step long advocated by Mr. Bromley -- the establishment of a forum to discuss big science projects long before the groundbreaking ceremonies take place.
The emphasis on early discussion arises from America's sad experience in seeking foreign financial help for the big atom smasher now under construction in Texas. After the plans for the Super Collider were drawn up by American physicists, and the requisite American site was selected, Washington invited Europe and Japan to share the mammoth costs, officially set at $8.2 billion, but certain to run far higher than that.
Europe declined, citing plans for its own mega-project in atom smashing, known as the Large Hadron Collider. Japan politely offered to think about it, and has been doing so for over three years, without any sign of a decision.
The real problem arises from America planning the party and then inviting our foreign friends to chip in for the costs. Candidly acknowledging that failing, which preceded his arrival in office, Mr. Bromley argues that the United States must now follow an international course in big science projects, even to the extent of paying for research facilities in other countries.
In a recent talk, he said that from now on scientists must ''come together as an international community and ask ourselves: What are the next questions that need answering to push forward our common frontiers? We could then decide what we needed in the way of facilities and instrumentation, where we were going to put them, how we could fund them, how we were going to build them and how we could take advantage of the best possible international expertise available. That, we hope, is the way of the future,'' Mr. Bush's science adviser declared.
Mr. Bromley suggested that the American and European Super Colliders ''are too far along for such a truly international approach to be valid. But we believe that they may represent the last of their kind -- the major scientific facility identified with a particular nation or a small group of nations.''
Politicians will, of course, have the final say on whether taps are to be sounded for nationalism in big science. They may balk a bit, but in the long run, there's no choice. As Mr. Bromley noted, big science is becoming too expensive for any one country, even the United States, to pay the costs.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes Science & Government Report, a Washington-based newsletter.