The superconducting supercollider: a collision course

WHEN the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee last week predictably voted to fund the 53-mile underground race track known as the superconducting supercollider (SSC), it made a long-shot wager that may severely debilitate America's research programs and hurt United States industrial competitiveness. Proponents of the $6 billion potential white elephant will tell you quite the opposite. They claim this giant research project is a vital investment in America's future. They say it puts the US on the cutting edge of the next generation of particle physics, that its potential scientific and commercial applications are well worth the massive construction and operating costs.

The chorus of support for the SSC is, indeed, a loud one. More than half the members of the House have signed on to the measure as cosponsors, an extraordinary showing of bipartisan unity. Still, their song has only begun. Once the Department of Energy chooses the site for the project, I believe that chorus will be reduced to a solo, or at best, a duet.

Twenty-five states are colliding in the selection process. A dozen others have endorsed proposals submitted by their neighbors. Not surprisingly, a whopping 94 percent of the cosponsors of the SSC bill represent one of these states. Such a lopsided margin draws into question the motives for supporting the supercollider. Is it, in fact, concern for America's long-term future or, more likely, the short-term prospect of thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars of added revenue for the winning congressional districts?

In truth, the superconducting supercollider does have legitimate scientific applications. The giant magnetic raceway would study atomic particles smashing into one another at a velocity approaching the speed of light. While the project could bolster America's high-energy physics standing, it would at the same time slow down much of our country's badly needed research.

The collider comes down to a question of priorities. This decade has seen a steady erosion of America's civilian research budget. Understandably, there are many in the scientific and commercial communities with serious reservations about the prospect of the SSC's gobbling up almost one-third of the available civilian research pie. Roland Schmitt, chief scientist at General Electric and chairman of the National Science Board, says that our top science priority should be ``getting the academic research and education base fixed first,'' not building the SSC. A White House Science Council study, the Packard-Bromley Report, underscores that conclusion. It calls for another $10 billion to improve America's sagging university research facilities.

The list of research efforts the supercollider would elbow from the table is long and notable. Funding for acquired immune deficiency syndrome research would likely be hurt, as would R&D on vital forward-thinking programs like materials research, global warming, genetic engineering, energy efficiency, and biodiversity.

US competitiveness would also suffer. According to the National Science Foundation, more than half of all productivity increases in the US since the end of World War II have resulted from new technology, the byproduct of civilian research. By funneling funding for such R&D away from commercial research and into the supercollider, who knows what potential breakthroughs we are delaying or missing altogether.

One month before Christmas, the US is about to add an expensive high-tech toy to its wish list. But with our giant budget and trade deficits, we have to ask whether or not we've been good enough to deserve it.

Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island is a member of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

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