Two Juicy Targets for the Budget Ax

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

February 17, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- If you're looking for a test of Bill Clinton's commitment to federal frugality, keep a close watch on the deepest sinkholes in Washington's research inventory, Space Station Freedom and the Superconducting Super Collider. Compared to this gold-plated duo, White House limousines and executive dining rooms are petty cash.

The space station and the collider are extravagantly expensive, irrelevant to the country's economic plight and senseless drains on scarce research funds. No matter. After billions of dollars of expenditures, they've made the crucial transition from research projects to politically attractive producers of big payrolls and plump contracts. They won't die easily.

Little is heard these days about the utility of these two projects on the frontiers of research. The argument has shifted to economic grounds, with frequent references to the contracts for construction, components and services that have been strategically dispersed throughout the country. The projects thrive as jobs programs.

The space station would be an orbiting motel without serious purpose In Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, the fiscal magicians at the Energy Department produced a Russian 'contribution' to the Supercollider consisting of American dollars sent to Russia.

beyond demonstrating the ability to construct and operate an orbiting motel. Scientists scoff at the claim that it will be useful for zero-gravity experiments, pointing out that cheap, unmanned satellites could do just as well and free up a lot of money for serious scientific studies in space.

But the culture of the space establishment holds that NASA without astronauts is like the circus without acrobats. Space exploration and utilization could fare very well without the presence of fragile humans in that inhospitable environment -- and at much lower cost. But then space would be deprived of the human drama that NASA mistakenly deems essential for public support.

Sold to Congress with a sucker-bait $8 billion price tag in the mid-'80s, the space station is now officially listed at $30 billion -- but the more likely figure is at least $40 billion, according to congressional investigators.

The supercollider, now under construction near Dallas, will be the world's biggest atom smasher and is designed to answer intriguing questions about the structure of basic matter. None of the questions, however, is urgent or worth the mammoth cost at a time when many fields of research that are intellectually and economically important are crimped by tight budgets.

Like the space station, the supercollider was deceptively underpriced in its initial presentation to Congress. The starting figure, about $5 billion, swiftly climbed to over $8 billion. At that point, a lot of congressmen felt Gramm-Rudman shivers while scientists in other fields feared the behemoth's effects on their budgets. To soothe them, the sponsoring Department of Energy announced that foreign contributors would shoulder $1.7 billion of the costs because, it insisted, they wanted to share in the wonders of the great atom smasher on the Texas plains.

To maintain this claimed foreign interest, the Energy Department said, it would be necessary to keep on spending American dollars as a sign of commitment to the venture. Congress went along, shelling out nearly $2 billion over the past few years.

Other countries have contributed nothing, but that hasn't prevented the fiscal magicians at the Department of Energy from claiming contributions that, in fact, do not exist. To do this, the department has parts and services for the Super Collider. The bargain price abroad is deducted from the higher American prices and the difference is credited as a foreign ''contribution.''

Under this method, according to the General Accounting Office, goods and services that would cost $122.5 million in the United States have been contracted to Russian scientists for $59.4 million, producing a Russian ''contribution'' of $63.1 million. In Alice in Wonderland fashion, the ''contribution'' consists of American dollars sent to Russia.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton spoke favorably about the space station and the supercollider. And a Senate election in May for the seat vacated by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen adds political value to the projects, since both mean a lot to that state economically.

But weighed in terms of the economic sense and rejuvenation that Clinton has repeatedly pledged, the two should be at the top of the list for termination. The savings could finance a lot of valuable science and technology now withering for lack of money.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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