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Super Collider Project Must Continue

By Daniel Stevenson
Columnist

On Jan. 30, 1987, the Reagan White House approved funding for the superconducting super collider, setting in motion one of the most ambitious scientific projects of the century and prompting a far-reaching debate about funding for pure research and "big science" projects. With the proposed 20 trillion volt accelerator, high energy physicists will have an incredibly powerful new tool to make monumental discoveries about the fundamental make-up of matter.

At the same time, however, we are in a tremendous government financial crunch, with hundreds of worthwhile social, economic, and scientific programs vying for pieces of an ever-shrinking funding base. Many lawmakers raise important questions about the validity of a large expenditure for science during times of economic hardship. During a House debate last June about funding for the SSC, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) accused the government of building "an $11 billion toy for a select number of high-energy physicists," and Rep. Jack Reed (D-RI) emphasized that "we have a budget deficit and sluggish economy, and we simply cannot afford these projects."

The truth is, however, that we simply cannot afford to pass up this incredible scientific opportunity. Despite a huge budget deficit, despite pressing domestic concerns, and despite opposition from many scientists and legislators of both political parties, we must make the tough decision to continue the superconducting super collider. America has long been a world leader in science, especially in high energy physics, and it would be a great folly to abandon this lead by scrapping the SSC.

The scientific benefits of the SSC are immeasurable. At least one discovery that is guaranteed by experiments at such high energies is the mechanism for electroweak symmetry breaking, a discovery that would shed new light on physicists' "standard model" of elementary particles. Often, however, the most important discoveries of particle accelerators are quite unexpected. The Bevatron accelerator, built in the 1950s, was mainly motivated by the search for antiprotons, which it found, along with a wide variety of unexpected new strongly interacting particles. In a similar vein, experiments at the SSC are expected to discover, along with electroweak symmetry breaking, important facts about the missing dark matter in the Universe, new particles within the subatomic quarks, and countless other significant observations.

Despite these scientific benefits, several scientists, including Nobel laureates, argue that it is the continuation rather than the termination of the SSC that will most likely doom science in the United States. They maintain that such large spending in one subfield limits research in other equally worthy areas. Though the $11 billion price tag is high, it does not represent a serious neglect of funding for other sciences. For example, the National Institutes of Health alone receives more than $10 billion annually. It is also unusual for deficit reduction in science to be targeted at the SSC, rather than more expensive and less scientifically and strategically useful projects such as the space station and the Sea Wolf submarine, whose only saving grace appears to be heavy commercial and political interest.

Opponents to the collider also stress the fact that large pure science projects can have no real economic benefits. To the contrary, the SSC has already resulted in the transfer of important technologies to industry in areas such as magnetic levitation transportation, medical imaging systems, and super conducting magnetic energy storage, along with countless other applications as widespread as information storage, proton therapy, and image processing. Money spent on the collider actually produces as many jobs as money spent in other areas. Along with the construction jobs required to build the facility, experiments would provide research opportunities for the next generation of high energy physicists, keeping this group of highly gifted and historically productive scientists in the United States.

Although the proposed new accelerator represents a huge expense by a debt-laden government, although it has few obvious short-term benefits, and although it is opposed by strong group of legislators and scientists, the superconducting super collider cannot be compromised. It will bring new technology into industry, it will create and keep science jobs, and it will maintain the United States at the forefront of high energy physics research. However, as Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg says in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, the real reason for the continuation of the SSC project is "a sense that without it we may not be able to continue with the great intellectual adventure of discovering the final laws of nature."