SYMBOLICALLY speaking, the space shuttle Columbia, now orbiting Earth, poses a crucial question for the future of American research. Can the United States fully internationalize ``big science''? That means science that needs facilities and money on a scale that the US can no longer afford. Yet it is also science the country cannot afford to neglect.
The quest to understand the basic nature of matter, which requires tools like the defunct supercollider particle accelerator, illustrates this kind of science. The effort on Columbia to learn how biological and materials processes work in microgravity is another example. The spaceborne experiments are meaningful largely as a prelude to more extensive, longer duration studies on an international space station.
If the US is to continue to do this kind of big science, it needs partners. Yet its inability to uphold funding commitments and its penchant for unilaterally changing plans has earned it a reputation for unreliability. Space station partners - which now include Russia - chafe under the repeated design changes of what is nominally a joint project.
Some of them also remember that the US suddenly cancelled its share of the Ulysses solar probe mission. Only the European unit of what was to be a spacecraft pair now is studying the Sun.
It's no wonder that Europe, Japan, and other potential partners turned aside when asked to join the supercollider project.
From now on, the US can expect to be, at most, one partner among equals. It has an immediate opportunity to practice this new status. The European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) near Geneva has invited the US to join its program to build a next-generation particle accelerator. The Clinton administration has welcomed the invitation. If it does accept, the administration - and Congress - should make sure the US will hold up its end of the partnership.
Beyond that, the administration should identify the big-science areas that the US should pursue over the next decade or two. Then it should work with Congress and other interested countries to find ways to carry on that research. This is the only option any nation now has that will allow it to engage in the kind of science that no single nation can afford - but from which all benefit.