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House Drops SSC Funding Again; Hopes of Revival Dim

By Robert Lee Hotz
and Lianne Hart

Los Angeles Times


In the beginning, the superconducting super collider was a 4-pound blue book that cost $60 million to produce.

For physicists, that 712-page proposal was a riveting text that envisioned a machine to reveal the origin of matter. Among the small-town politicians and congressmen who saw in its dry technical specifications a more earthly promise of 15,000 local jobs, it became an instant best-seller. This week, with a key congressional vote to deny funding, the project may have entered its last chapter.

More than a decade and $2 billion after it was first authorized, the atom smasher is ending as 10 miles of dry holes in Waxahatchie -- a monument to the ambitions and the bitter failures of Big Science.

Long after the the House voted almost 2-1 to halt construction of the collider, people in Waxahachie were just starting to tally the human toll -- local families disrupted and homesteads demolished to make way for the construction, others uprooted to follow the lure of the research opportunities. In all, the government bought 16,000 acres and nearly 200 homes to make room for the 54-mile oval tunnel. The entire community of Boz, home to about 400 people, was razed to make way for the SSC laboratory's west campus.

Jo Ann Collier, 61, was forced from her home because it fell in the path of the supercollider. Her husband had cancer at the time. He died last year. "We wanted to stay in that house til we died, and it's all torn up now," she said, twisting her wedding ring around her finger. "It makes you feel so helpless.

Scientists and policy experts say the determination to kill the $11 billion SSC may be the turning point in a decade-long debate over the size and scope of federally funded science projects like the space station, the human genome project, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the $237 million "asymmetric B-factory" accelerator awarded last week to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The Stanford project is still awaiting approval of its funding from a congressional conference committee.

Throughout the last decade, the federal government promised scientists funding for an unprecedented array of expensive instruments. New projects planned during the 1980s for completion in the 1990s totaled $60 billion in construction costs, with another $100 billion in total operating costs estimated, according to the Congressional Research Service. At one point, the annual budget request for the proposed space station dwarfed the entire annual budget for the National Science Foundation.

Cost overruns, design flaws, and accidents, such as the recent disappearance of the Mars Observer spacecraft, helped turn such efforts to expand the frontiers of science into powerful symbols of gilt-edged incompetence, congressional science experts and some policy analysts said.

But most importantly, it made them conspicuous targets for belt-tightening in a era of retrenchment and recession.

"It is obviously energetic budget cutting," said George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee. "But you are threatening the economic development of the country in a very broad sense.

"You have a majority (in Congress) who weren't even around when this project was started. It is a high priority target for them," Brown said. "A project that takes this long may no longer be viable in a Congress that has no collective memory.

The decision to eliminate the supercollider, however, may free funding for other physics research projects, including the Stanford project, Brown said.

Jack Storey, who gave up a prestigious job in Boston to become associate director of the sprawling supercollider laboratory in DeSoto, about 20 minutes from Waxahachie, spoke emotionally about the SSC, which that was to probed the most fundamental building blocks of matter.

"There's no question we thought the most important science project to occur in the next twenty years was going to happen here. It's a tremendous disappointment," he said. "Lots of people are frightened."

Jim Siegrist, a senior physicist at SSC, quit his job as a professor at the University of California, Berkley and moved to Texas two years ago with his wife and two elementary-school age boys.

We knew that you had to get funding every year, but Congress made a commitment to build in 1990 and it seemed implausible they would just sort of go back on that commitment," he said. "I wouldn't have wasted my time if I knew (they would)."

"Now we've got to pull up and get out of here and go somewhere else unless I find a job here, which seems unlikely ... I haven't really figured it out."