Vital science tool or a public-works project - the relative weight of those views may well determine the future of a multibillion-dollar United States physics facility, now that the first cut has been made among candidate sites. The National Academy of Sciences named Dec. 29 what it and the National Academy of Engineering deemed the eight most suitable sites for the $4.4 billion Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). The sites are located in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The list was drawn from proposals for 35 sites in 25 states.
The project's backers have been concerned about the depth of support in Congress for the collider, partly because of recent budget action. The US Department of Energy sought $35 million for the project in fiscal 1988 - $10 million for construction and $25 million for research and development. Congress knocked out the construction money.
In addition, supporters have dangled the project's expected economic benefits - some 3,000 full-time jobs plus a $270 million-a-year operating budget - in trolling for bids from states. As long as 25 states had a shot at the collider and its economic benefits, the support held. Now that the list has been trimmed, backers are concerned that the support will erode.
``If the debate hasn't transcended the numbers game,'' then it will be difficult to sustain support, says Chris Coburn, who took a lead role in putting together Ohio's bid for the collider. ``If DOE and the administration and physicists have made their case effectively, then perhaps the collider has a chance.''
That case includes issues of international economic competitiveness, scientific breakthroughs, and the potential for technological spinoffs from the collider.
One byproduct of the site selection process that may delay widespread defections is an apparent willingness among some states to back surviving proposals from other states in their region - in essence turning what was a state competition into a regional competition.
While expressing regret that Ohio didn't make the final eight, Mr. Coburn notes that Gov. Richrd Celeste remains committed to the project wherever it ends up and could easily throw his support behind Michigan's bid, for example.
Likewise, an aide to a member of Washington's congressional delegation says that her state ``will probably support another Western state.''
The Department of Energy is expected to pick a single site next July and confirm it in January 1989.
Although supporters hope to maintain political backing for the collider, others want it to evaporate.
``I certainly hope political support falls away,'' says Philip Speser, executive director of the National Coalition for Science and Technology. ``The SSC is good science. The problem is, in viewing major cuts in federal R&D programs, you want to think real hard about bringing someone else up to the trough. No one is talking about increasing money for general science to ensure that money for the SSC won't come out of other projects.''
An aide to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico sounds a none-too-reassuring note: ``Paying for the SSC will take sacrifices in other areas. How we achieve that is the big question.''