AT a time when the American people, in record numbers, are expressing dissatisfaction with the direction of our country and discontent pervades the land, it is easy to forget how well off we really are. Indeed, average American citizens today live in greater comfort, with better health and better quality of life, than kings and emperors of ages past.
To what do we owe this remarkable standard of living we enjoy today? Science. In fact, fully half of our country's present gross national product (GNP) can be attributed to the scientific research of the past 30 years.
And now, America stands at the threshold of a bold new era in scientific research with the construction of the world's largest scientific instrument, the superconducting super collider (SSC).
Given the cost of this project and the pressures on Congress and the administration to come to grips with the ever-growing federal deficit, some have questioned whether we can afford to go forward with the SSC. In my view the question is: Can we afford to abandon it, particularly for the sake of a largely symbolic vote to reduce the deficit?
The truth is, the $550 million budgeted for the project in the coming fiscal year represents forty-three one-thousandths of 1 percent of the total federal budget. Congress would have to eliminate the SSC and 22 other projects of equal cost to achieve a 1 percent reduction in the deficit.
If we are serious about bringing deficit spending under control, shouldn't we be focusing instead on the real source of the problem, entitlements, which represent 59 percent of the budget and which have been increasing 15 percent each year? If the science of the past three decades accounts for half our current GNP, imagine what the science of tomorrow will bring. The need to stimulate our economy and promote America's competitiveness in the world argue for increasing, not scaling back, our investment in science.
Critics of the SSC also argue that the project will cannibalize funding for other worthwhile research efforts. But this project represents only six-tenths of 1 percent of all the nation's research and development funding.
Why does the scientific community consider this project so crucial? Why is it important that we explore the nature of matter and energy and the basic forces that govern all the universe, mysteries only the super collider can reveal?
The SSC will allow our scientists not only to describe the basic particles from which we and our world are made, but also to discover how those particles come to have the properties they have. In collisions at energies available only in the SSC, it is possible to map connections among the basic forces that act between these particles, leading to further unification of our picture of how nature operates.
Knowledge generated from the SSC clarifies the realm of subnuclear phenomena in a way that permits us to test our understanding of the universe. States of matter studied in the SSC directly relate to the earliest moments of the universe, to the development of the cosmos we see today, and to the future evolution of the universe.
The SSC can cap a period during which the progress in man's understanding of how things are rivals that of the ages of Newton and of Einstein.
As Dr. Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, put it so eloquently in his recent testimony before a Senate hearing on the SSC, what is at stake is "the continuation of a 2,500-year-old quest for comprehension of the world in which we humans find ourselves. The history of our quest for who and what we are stops at the super collider."
Over the years, our scientific preeminence has been of immense value to us. It has resulted in technology that was cutting-edge science at one time, but is now applied in communications, electronics, superconductors, computers, materials, mathematical techniques, diagnostics, and manufacturing capabilities that we take for granted in our daily lives and that form the basis for the most powerful economy in the world. And the knowledge we expect to gain from the SSC promises to be even more profound, with even broader and more valuable technological applications.
Can we afford the SSC? I believe that a nation such as ours, the leader of the world - not just in military might, but most importantly in science and, in turn, in GNP - cannot afford to retreat from this kind of challenge.