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Bizarre Marriage of Science, Politics : Costly Super Collider Comes With No Guarantees

December 06, 1987|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

Few citizens understand the arcane science of high-energy physics that the multibillion-dollar superconducting super collider would serve. Yet, according to political leaders from across the nation, the project enjoys enormous popular support.

The collider would rank as the most expensive basic science project ever undertaken. But there is no guarantee that anything of practical value will come of it.

In the end, if no new particles are found, it could simply prove that the atom has already been smashed enough.

Despite all this, the giant machine--which will cost a minimum of $4.3 billion in today's dollars--is seen as one way to restore America's preeminence in science and technology, an image that has been threatened by technological failures in the space program and growing prowess among other nations that are now challenging America's leadership.

Both Europe and the Soviet Union are building atom smashers that will dwarf the world's current leader at Fermilab near Chicago, thus taking the lead in a field that U.S. scientists have long thought of as a primarily American domain.

Last week, several hundred people, ranging from private citizens to Nobel laureates and governors, took part in a two-day symposium here sponsored by the American Physical Society and billed as a "report to the nation" on the status of the collider.

Difficult Funding

If there is a single consensus that emerged from the meeting, it is that funding for the project will be hard to come by in these days of fiscal restraints, but the project is so important that eventual success is inevitable.

"We don't have any choice," said Congressman Ralph Hall (D-Texas) in an impassioned speech. "We have to build it."

Hall, of course, hopes that one of two proposed sites in Texas will be picked for the project.

In all, 25 states are competing for the collider, and whichever one wins will immediately emerge as the world center for high-energy physics, thus making the project one of the most prestigious of all scientific plums.

Scientists attending the conference here seemed bemused, puzzled and flattered by the degree of attention the project has generated across the nation. These scientists are, by and large, very cerebral types who spend part of their time in the lab searching for bits of matter trillions of times too small to be seen, and the rest of their time trying to explain why they want to find it.

Leon Lederman, the quick-witted director of Fermilab, warned his colleagues to steer clear of "the enormous hype that's been made about the SSC (collider)."

But he couldn't resist rejoicing in the public's sudden interest in his field.

"When the mayor of Waxahachie, Tex., says we've got to find the Higgs boson, then something wonderful is happening in America," Lederman said.

The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence has been inferred, but not proved. Wakahachie is near one of the sites Texas has proposed for the project.

The 25 states in the running for the project, including California, have proposed a total of 36 sites that are now under consideration. This partly explains the broad-based political support, because the project will pump billions of dollars into whatever area is selected. And it will attract top scientists from around the world for decades to come.

May Be a Mistake

The list of states is to be narrowed down to a handful--probably five or six--early next month, a move some politicians and scientists believe may be a mistake.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-New Mexico), one of the leading supporters of the project in Washington, stunned the scientists when he warned that funding for the project may not be available for the next couple of years. And then he made a suggestion that other politicians here did not even want to discuss.

Why not, the senator asked, hold up the site selection process until funding is assured?

"The broad support may dwindle" when some states learn the collider will not be built within their borders, Domenici said.

The Machiavellian suggestion to withhold the site selection underscores the degree of politicization that the collider has undergone since it was formally proposed four years ago.

Finalist 'Short List'

Many attending the conference said they thought it unlikely that Domenici's suggestion would be adopted, partly because the matter is out of their hands. The American Academies of Science and Engineering are now preparing the "short list" of finalists, and any change in the procedure would smack of manipulation, some officials said.

Virtually all the politicians attending the meeting--including the governors of Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio and South Dakota--said they would support the project, no matter where it is built. But all campaigned for their states.

And in the end, several conceded, politics will play a key role in the site selection process.

"Big science is also big politics," said Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste, a Democrat.

'Cutting Edge'

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