The Lesson of the Super Collider

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

October 25, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- If the Superconducting Super Collider remains in the grave to which Congress has just consigned it, national mourning is not in order. Contrary to the extravagant lamentations of its bereaved promoters, the giant atom smasher's demise is not a calamity for the nation, a catastrophe for science or further confirmation of idiocy on Capitol Hill.

With the tact characteristic of the brotherhood of physics (few women in that line of work), the originator of the super-collider concept, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, has declared: ''It's disheartening that a large number of fairly intelligent people could do such a dumb thing.'' The chief of construction and research for the super collider, Roy F. Schwitters, said, ''I think this is just an unbelievable waste and tragedy.''

The congressional action is a painful blow for the thousands of construction workers and specialists building the facility and the few hundred scientists who hoped to use the great apparatus to advance knowledge and reap scientific glory. But, whatever the gloom of the moment, this field of research, particle physics, continues with intellectual vigor and the big budgets required to finance it. Particle physics is thriving at research centers in the U.S., at Europe's big collaborative center in Switzerland, and, to a lesser extent, in other nations.

It can continue to do so into the indefinite future if physicists and their government patrons dispense with scientific chauvinism and go international in planning and building scientific mega-projects. The political misfortunes of the super collider can be directly traced to a misguided early scheme to entice Japan and Europe into financing an all-American research facility.

The super collider was financially different from its predecessors, priced in the billions, rather than the hundreds of millions that the U.S. government paid for the current generation of atom smashers. To calm Congress' concerns about the costs, the Department of Energy came in with an unrealistically low price of $4.4 billion for the vast undertaking, and also issued confident assurances of heavy foreign financial aid for the venture. As much as half of the required money would come from abroad, Energy Secretary John Herrington assured Congress in 1988.

With construction costs spread over 10 years, and the burden to be lightened by foreign help, Congress signed on. As the project proceeded, the cost estimates zoomed, and now stand at $11 billion -- more than double the original figure, even allowing for inflation. The concerns aroused by the increases were compounded by the failure of foreign money to materialize, even though late in the game, the U.S. declared that, though situated in Texas, the super collider would be an ''international'' facility.

Burdened by the costs of building its own advanced particle accelerator, Europe declined to finance an American competitor. While never saying no, Japan said it would study the proposition -- and today is still doing so, five years after it was first invited to send money.

George Bush's science adviser, Allan Bromley, publicly grieved about the two-step process his administration had inherited of building in America and then raising an international banner. The next big facility, in physics as well as in other fields, Dr. Bromley declared, must be international, starting with the earliest planning stage.

But with major construction under way at the super collider site in Texas, it was too late to go back and internationalize the project. Several of the original planners publicly conceded that the expectation of foreign assistance had become a burden on the project, and said it should openly proceed as an all-American venture. No matter. Though the Senate voted to continue, the House was in a slashing mood, and refused to budge. In a crucial vote, down went the super collider, 282-143.

Congressional rejection of the super collider doesn't mean never. What it does mean is not now and especially not entirely financed by the U.S. Political sense and the future of particle physics now call for the U.S. to offer to pitch in financially on Europe's big facility.

Once that's completed and operating, thoughts and money can turn to the next enterprise in this ever-costlier field of research. The lesson of the super collider is clear and simple: Go international.

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

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