The High Cost of High-Energy Physics
New machines planned or being built promise new breakthroughs in physics - but the price tag raises questions about their merit PARTICLE PHYSICS
BOSTON — PARTICLE physicist Henry Frisch has a bittersweet problem.
His group at the University of Chicago has a green light to proceed with a major research project at the nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in the spring.
But the associated funding does not cover auxiliary neces-sities such as upgrading compu-ters and other equipment within his own university laboratory. Nor does it give adequate support for his graduate-student crew.
The situation "is very, very grim," he says, adding that "the indications are it's going to get worse." He calls it a classic problem of big science versus little science.
This is the drop of gall in the cup that particle physicists are being asked to drink. They know that they are ready to break through to a deeper understanding of matter's basic nature. Yet the costs associated with the powerful new accelerators that will make this breakthrough possible threaten the vitality of their field.
As Michael Riordan, assistant to the president of Universities Research Association Inc. in Washington, D.C., notes, the $8.25 billion Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) accelerator under construction near Waxahachie, Texas, "will be the largest and most expensive scientific instrument ever built." This has caused intense debate within the United States Congress about the project's cost-benefit merit.
The association, which has the Department of Energy contract to build the SSC, is moving forward: Congressional supporters overcame efforts to kill the project last summer. Its fiscal 1992 funding is about twice the $243 million 1991 appropriation - roughly in line with the Bush administration's request. But other aspects of high-energy physics research pay a high price.
No sooner had President Bush signed the Department of Energy's funding legislation than DOE energy research director William Happer called in a task force of scientists and research administrators to advise him on how best to use his shrinking funds. DOE expects its research budget, exclusive of SSC money, to decline steadily over the next five years in terms of constant dollars. From a physicist's viewpoint, the advice was grim.
A top priority at Fermilab is installation of a new injector to feed particles into its big accelerator. The lab expects this to give new potency and add 10 years of productive life to what is currently the world's most powerful high-energy-physics research machine. The task force, however, recommended continuing with the SSC and postponing Fermilab's injector. It also suggested that the DOE ask its regular High-Energy Physics Advisory Panel whether it wants to proceed with the Fermilab project at all.
The task force also recommended that the SSC not receive special funds, as planned, to enable scientists in its own laboratory to work at other accelerator sites until the SSC is operating. This will add to the competition for the restricted amount of high-energy-physics research funds outside the SSC program.
It is hard to foresee what the future costs of particle-physics research will be. The estimated cost of the machine rose 36 percent between 1986 and 1990, largely because its magnets were redesigned. Although Congress funded the SSC for fiscal 1992, many members remain skeptical about future costs.
Comments by Rep. Howard Wolpe (D) of Michigan during the debate last spring typified this skepticism. He claimed that SSC operating costs "will swamp the high-energy physics budget. The projected annual cost of operating the SSC after it is commissioned is $380 million in fiscal 1992 dollars. That is 74 percent of the entire budget for all of the accelerator labs."
Congress has tried to cap SSC costs by ordering DOE to seek foreign partners. It wants the federal government to pay no more than about $5 billion of the estimated $8.25 billion construction bill. With Texas contributing $1 billion in state funds, that leaves a great deal of money to be raised abroad.
So far, the project has few suitors. Only India has come forward with a $50 million offer. A DOE delegation to Japan came away empty handed in 1990. When Mr. Bush raised the issue during the visit of then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu last July, Mr. Kaifu acknowledged "a growing awareness in Japan that ... the Superconducting Collider is important." The issue is likely to come up again during the president's upcoming visit to Tokyo. Unconfirmed reports suggest Japan may be more willing now to contribute t o the project.
There seems little prospect for any substantial European contribution to the SSC, either. The European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) at Geneva has plans for its own advanced accelerator. Although this would cost considerably less than the SSC, CERN member-states have yet to approve it. CERN director Carlo Rubbia also faces cost-benefit skepticism. He, too, is seeking partners outside the CERN membership to sweeten his proposal.
For University of Chicago physicist Frisch, the whole matter "is a question of 'do we have our priorities right? Physicists need the new machines to solve basic problems they now feel ready to attack. But the machines can't do the work themselves. That takes human researchers, generally young scientists.
Dr. Frisch notes that funding "is tight even when you're part of a big lab." He explains that "it comes down to what's in the university lab" that you can work with when the data come back from the SSC or other facility. This, he says, is not a good career prospect for graduate students.
He says he believes that high-energy physics "still is attractive" for students. But he concedes that "it's getting harder to attract them." If this research field is to fulfill the promise it now shows, he says, "you have to invest in young people."