Boston — Last week's selection of Texas as site of the world's largest atom smasher shows the Energy Department's tendency to dole out big science projects instead of consolidate them. At present Texas has no national laboratories and no real base of high-energy physics research. In contrast, a competing site, Batavia, Ill., is home to Fermilab, the most powerful accelerator in the United States.
``You could have built on the infrastructure in Batavia and had some savings,'' says Harden Wiedemann, a business leader who was central to Texas' bid for the $4.4 billion superconducting supercollider. But Mr. Wiedemann says the decision to start fresh in Waxahachie, near Dallas, will foster a more innovative approach to high-energy physics research.
``Because we perceived the project as a necessary means of diversifying our economy, maybe we went after it a little more aggressively,'' he says.
Another example of ``doling'' was in 1983 when the last big accelerator was up for grabs. The Energy Department selected a proposal that would put the nuclear physics machine in Newport News, Va., instead of the established Argonne National Lab in Illinois.
Accelerators help physicists explain events that occurred a fraction of a second after the ``big bang,'' the generally accepted explanation on the creation of the universe. The supercollider will probe still farther back and expose particle interactions that have been theorized but never observed.
Despite the site selection, the accelerator's future will not be secure until Congress appropriates construction money. With six states out of the running, Wiedemann says the project has lost some constituents and will have to be sold as a ``critical component of US economic competitiveness.''
While the project is likely to generate valuable knowledge, especially about low-temperature superconductivity, an equal amount of money spent on other research might also spin off substantial advances, a Congressional Budget Office report says. According to the report, the collider may ``crowd out'' other research. Scientists conducting smaller-scale research are often opposed to such megaprojects.
But ``there is no guarantee that the $5 billion used in another way would capture attention as this venture does,'' Wiedemann says. ``It's not necessarily a zero-sum game. This project can add to the total amount of money spent on science.''
Lower cost alternatives to the supercollider exist. The US could join the European Organization for Nuclear Research in building an accelerator one-third the strength for $600 million to $1 billion.
Or it could build a $1 billion to $2 billion intermediate machine that might eventually have the same capabilities as the super accelerator.
The congressional report says both alternatives have higher design risks than the planned collider.
While the Texas accelerator team is jubilant, it acknowledges the toughest fight is yet to come.
``To get the thing funded, the Energy Department and Texas are going to be looking for international cooperation. Japan, Canada, and Europe have expressed interest.
As the US gets more committed, the others will show more enthusiasm,'' Weidemann says.