Too little `big bang' for the buck

PICKING Texas as the site of the world's largest, most expensive scientific tool, the superconducting supercollider, was the easy part of the job. Now President-elect George Bush, the Texas congressional delegation, and scientists from the high-energy physics community share the burden of proof in selling the project to the rest of Congress and the public - who should listen to the sales pitch with a prudent dash of skepticism.

The SSC promises elegant science - at an elegant price. The $4.4 billion device (FY '88 dollars), to be built over nine years, is designed to help see if the forces of nature we know today are different aspects of one unified force thought to have existed briefly after the big bang formed the universe.

An intriguing goal. But skepticism over the nation's need for the collider is warranted for several reasons.

Budget impact. The Reagan administration has backed a $25 billion space station, a $3 billion effort to map the human genome, and the goal of doubling the National Science Foundation budget over five years. As for the collider, beyond its $4.4 billion construction cost lies the $270 million a year needed to run the machine once it is built. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that during six years of its nine-year construction period, the collider could consume 6 to 7 percent of the total basic research budget and 13 percent of the physical sciences budget. This is likely to crowd out other basic research. That competition will intensify as the President and Congress struggle to meet deficit-reduction targets.

Scientific returns. Even if the SSC finds nothing, the results will be thought-provoking. But competing priorities among federal science programs, and among science and other budget areas, give taxpayers the right to ask for more than provoked thoughts for their money. The collider's $4.4 billion could be of broader service to humanity, going to such fields as solid-state physics, geophysics, biology, and science education.

US leadership in high-energy physics is a tradition worth upholding. That leadership, however, is due as much to imaginative researchers and their freedom to pursue their interests as it is to facilities. Experimenters are no respecters of boundaries. US-based researchers conduct experiments in Europe, while European scientists do the same in the United States. Their results are published worldwide and generally put to good use by theorists around the globe. In the end it matters less that a high-energy accelerator is built than that US researchers have access to such facilities, wherever built.

As for the collider's effect on attracting people to study science, it is likely to be minimal. The US Department of Energy has estimated that of 102,000 PhD students pursuing degrees in the physical sciences, 600 were studying high-energy physics.

Economic competitiveness. This is the shakiest argument of all for the collider. It is first and last a science project, not an economic project. History suggests that other US accelerators have done little to bring added economic benefit to a region beyond the short-term construction jobs. Technological spinoffs are likely to be minimal: The SSC's technology is highly specialized; and aside from scale, it does not represent a quantum leap in accelerator principles.

The project has much more appeal if enough international cooperation can be marshaled to perhaps halve the cost to the US; leadership in high-energy physics is also a function of leadership in cooperation. Absent substantial help from Japan and Western Europe, shelving the SSC may do more to promote general science in the US than building it.

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