Basic Science Meets Basic Budget in Atom Smasher Debate
WASHINGTON — `BASIC Research Is in Grave Danger! Your Urgent Help Is Needed Immediately!"
This is the headline of an electronic mail message distributed to high-energy physicists around the nation this week, urging them to voice public support for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a $10 billion atom smasher under construction in Texas.
Dozens of scientists took the hint and inundated opponents of the project with faxes echoing the wording suggested by the form letter: "The Super Collider is a vital project to my state of ... and to our nation."
The fax avalanche is only a small part of the war now being waged for the hearts and minds of lawmakers who will decide the super collider's fate, probably this month. With budget-cutting fervor at an all-time high, many big spending items - especially discretionary expenditures - are coming under siege.
Still, it is not easy to defeat huge public-works projects that create thousands of jobs, put money into the pockets of hundreds of contractors, and benefit virtually every congressional district in the country.
"When a $10 billion money train leaves Washington, there are an awful lot of people out there anxious for that money train to arrive. And they'll spend a lot of money, a lot of lobbying money, to keep that train on track," says Rep. Jim Slattery (D) of Kansas.
The SSC train almost derailed last year when the House of Representatives voted 232 to 181 to kill the project.
Although the Senate saved the SSC, the House defeat "was a real wake-up call for us," says H. Gerald Staub, executive director of the National Association for the Superconducting Super Collider. "We recognized that our program was in a precarious position and if we were going to salvage it, we had to put on a full-court press."
That is just what backers of the SSC have done this year. Mr. Staub's association - made up of corporations, such as General Dynamics and Parsons Brinckerhoff, that are building the super collider - expects to raise about $500,000 this year. Much of the money has gone to hire high-powered lobbyists from five different firms. One lobbyist, Powell Moore, is being paid $7,000 a month to push the project. Another $5,000 a month is going to a public-relations firm that is organizing a lobbying campaign by Nob el Prize-winning physicists.
SCIENTISTS, lobbyists, and businessmen backing the SSC already have visited more than 400 members of Congress. Their basic message is that the super collider will not only have long-term benefits for high-energy physics, but will also boost US economic competitiveness in the short term.
The Texas National Laboratory Commission, which administers the state's $1 billion contribution to the SSC, has even used teleconferencing to get the message out. The commission spent $300,000 to beam a seminar on the SSC's benefits to community leaders in six locations around the country this week.
Opponents of the SSC are not as well organized. A group called OOPS (Organizations Opposed to the Superconducting Super Collider) was formed just a few weeks ago. Its driving force is Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based lobbying organization, but it has recruited such unlikely allies as The Seniors Coalition and Friends of the Earth.
Why would environmentalists and senior-citizen groups oppose the SSC? Jake Hansen of The Seniors Coalition told a Capitol Hill news conference that "building a $14 billion racetrack for protons ... doesn't make sense" when Congress is considering cutting Social Security benefits.
"No one in our coalition questions that the SSC represents good science. [But] it is not priority science, and we have to establish some meaningful [fiscal] priorities," adds Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York.
OOPS's chief strategy is to mobilize grass-roots indignation against the expensive SSC. But it also employs two full-time lobbyists to work the corridors of the Capitol - a place they know well since they are former aides to former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D) of Ohio, a leading SSC opponent. Total spending for the lobbying campaign is under $10,000, says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
The anti-SSC forces are concentrating their limited resources in the House. "We're hoping for a big enough win in the House that senators sitting on the fence will get a strong message," Mr. Schatz says.
A House Appropriations subcommittee was scheduled to take up the issue yesterday, but no matter what is decided in committee, both sides predict a heated floor fight later this month. Then the SSC's $640 million annual allocation will go to the Senate.
Leading opponents of the SSC, such as Representative Boehlert, are confident they will win - in part, because they believe the Clinton administration will not go to the wall for the program now that Texas has no Democratic senators.
But supporters of the SSC are also optimistic. They have polled House members and say the race is a tossup. The outcome will depend on the large block of undecided members, many of them freshmen who may be open to pro-SSC arguments. "We have a 55 percent chance in the House," says Rep. Joe Barton (D) of Texas, a leading SSC backer. "We will win in the Senate."