Can the US Afford the Super Collider?
The price far outstrips any conceivable benefits
AS the Senate and the House decide the fate of the superconducting super collider (SSC), it is important to remember the old precept, "to govern is to choose." As one particle physicist put it, "It is a great intellectual gamble and the science is interesting, but is it worth this kind of money?" In our current fiscal climate, the answer is no.
In a world of balanced budgets, this $12 billion piece of equipment, which seeks to shed light on the origin of matter, would be a desirable project. But the question that Congress must address is not whether this program is good science.
Considered in isolation, it would be good for particle physicists to have the funds they need to address fundamental questions such as the origin of matter. But it would also be good for medical researchers to have all the funds they need to address fundamental questions in their field.
In truth, not one single claim for spinoff benefits of the SSC couldn't be obtained at a fraction of its cost by funding the spinoff applications directly. The SSC's real goal is to satisfy scientific curiosity at a time when many meritorious scientific needs go unmet.
In the last 12 years, the national debt has increased by more than 300 percent, and the budget that the president has submitted to Congress assumes a deficit for next year that is equal to about half of all the net deficits, plus interest, that the nation accumulated in the past 205 years. Congress must do what the president clearly does not want to do, and steadily refuses to do, and that is make tough choices. We should fund those programs that bring a real return on the taxpayers' dollar and delay tho se that do not, such as the SSC.
The simple truth is that claims about the spinoff benefits of the SSC, and particle physics more generally, are, in the words of Dr. James A. Krumhansl, past president of the American Physical Society, "fictitious and ethically irresponsible." Or, as professor Philip Anderson, a physics Nobel Laureate of Princeton University has put it, "Particle physics has not led to many technical breakthroughs ... the saddest sight of all is to see officials ... deliberately misleading Congress and the public with th ese false claims."
In private, responsible SSC supporters admit as much, but sadly they remain silent while the public is openly misled. The claims by SSC supporters that Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a result of SSC-related results, for example, are false.
There is no better evidence of the SSC's irrelevance to a sound economy than the fact that Japan, no slouch in the field of high technology, has steadfastly refused to contribute even a fraction of the cost despite repeated high-pressure administration lobbying. Even face to face salesmanship by President Bush himself in January failed to budge them.
But Japan's true opinion of the SSC is best revealed by the fact that, had they decided to participate in the project, it would have been funded out of their foreign-aid budget, not their science and technology budget.
One reason Japan cites for its refusal to commit to this project should give Congress serious pause as well. Japan is doing its own independent analysis of the SSC's costs because, according to one Japan government official quoted in the Japan media, "It is highly likely that the $8.25 billion figure the United States side has submitted may increase at some point during construction."
In 1987, the Department of Energy (DOE) told us that the SSC would cost $4.4 billion and called the estimate "accurate to within 10 percent." Then in 1989, DOE Secretary James Watkins said, "If [the SSC] costs a dime more than $5 billion [$5.9 billion less $1 billion from Texas], we shouldn't build it." The latest DOE cost estimate is $8.25 billion, but their own internal independent cost estimate is $11.8 billion. And, they add, "this should not be interpreted as a worst case scenario."
Secretary Watkins is still the SSC's chief cheerleader, even though the projected lifetime costs for the SSC are about $20 billion.
Finally, every dime we pay for the SSC will be borrowed. Even at $8.25 billion, the 30-year cost of the SSC, including compound interest, is a staggering $70 billion.
If Congress can't now hear the voice of the people calling for change, and deficit reduction, then we deserve their wrath. It is time for Congress to stop ducking the hard choices and face up to them, as the House has done in voting 232-181 to stop this program. The super collider can, and must, wait.