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How Europe Swings The Big Science Tab

Science & Technology


From the air, the doughnut-shaped ring in Grenoble, France, looks as frozen as the neighboring Alps. But inside, electrons circle the half-mile tunnel at nearly the speed of light, producing ultrabrilliant X-ray beams that can expose the atomic structures of everything from proteins to crystals for the first time. The project is ahead of similar ones in the U.S. and Japan and could give Europe a lead in developing new materials, identifying viruses, and decoding unexplained chemical reactions.

The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), as the electron accelerator is called, isn't just at the leading edge of science. Around the world, governments are deciding that they can no longer pay for Big Science by themselves. Europe, with a 40-year record of multinational collaboration, provides the model for an alternative approach that splits expenses among many partners. And the $675 million, 12-nation ESRF is one of its shining successes. "Efforts like ESRF will be what we all look to as a road map" for megaprojects, says David Moncton, associate director of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

The U.S., in particular, has much to learn. Since World War II, it has funded nearly all its own Big Science. But the cold war's end and the runaway deficit are forcing a change. "Just as companies have to go multinational, science has to be international collaboration," says physicist George F. Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. Congress underscored this last summer when it nearly killed two projects --the $8.2 billion superconducting Supercollider and the $30 billion Space Station. Now, the Administration wants to slow down or scale back both. While that's debated, the U.S. has joined an international effort to coordinate future projects. Says Clinton science adviser John H. Gibbons: "I expect to be pretty engaged in the question of international science and technology."

He could do worse than look for answers in Europe. Its partnerships repeatedly have put aside national pride and resolved disputes over where to build a facility, how to pay for it, and how to share control. "Collaboration means to admit that your country won't be a world leader," says Christian Roche, planning director at the 40-year-old European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva. Yet together, the Europeans have authored discoveries that no partner alone could make in particle physics, nuclear fusion, astronomy, and space observation. CERN, for example, has won five Nobel prizes in physics.

TV FLOP. It's true that Europe isn't perfect. Recession and cost overruns forced the European Space Agency (ESA) to halt its premier space station and shuttle projects last fall. And at CERN, financial gripes of Germany, Spain, and others have slowed efforts to fund a new, $1.4 billion particle accelerator. Moreover, some of Europe's joint technology--as opposed to science--projects have been flops. Witness the failed effort to develop a high-definition TV standard (box).

ESRF itself had a rocky start. It was approved in the late 1970s after intense lobbying by scientists from 11 countries, then marked time while its job-hungry partners dickered over location. In a 1984 compromise, Germany, which funds 23% of ESRF, finally agreed to let France, which contributes 33%, have the machine. In return, a hypersonic wind tunnel funded by both countries was built in Germany. Once that was settled, other nations bought in.

For operating strategies, ESRF took lessons from such projects as CERN. To hold down costs, ESRF, too, awards juicy equipment and services contracts to the low bidder. Although smaller states grumble about not getting their share, this approach avoids a trap that snared the space agency, which guaranteed contracts in proportion to members' ownership--price notwithstanding. That helped make the Hermes space shuttle too costly for Europe to afford.

ESRF is well-structured in other ways. It has tapped the brainpower of countries that usually can't afford high-stakes science efforts. For instance, it lets Scandinavian and Benelux states form consortiums to meet the minimum 4% investment for partners. Yet ESRF also caters to its sugar daddies by weighting votes on key budget and staff decisions according to each country's financial stake. That sidesteps the one-country, one-vote rule that sparked trouble at CERN. Indeed, until Germany won changes last summer the four largest of CERN's 18 members, which pay 75% of its budget, could be overruled by the rest. "Big countries often feel small countries have too much power," says Robert Comes, research director at France's National Center for Scientific Research. The new deal counts as majority any group whose contributions total at least 50%.

Not least of all, ESRF's financial structure should provide remarkable stability. Its members signed on for at least 20 years and approved an initial 11-year budget that can be changed only by unanimous vote. The resulting long-range planning ability is the envy of U.S. science administrators, whose budgets Congress can alter yearly. "One secret of European collaborations is that countries stick to their agreements," says physicist Michael Riordan, assistant to the director at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California.

DIALING FOR DOLLARS. The U.S., by contrast, has cut back or pulled out of numerous international ventures with little regard for its partners. "We're not seen as very reliable," says D. Allan Bromley, science adviser to President Bush. In 1990, for example, America bailed out of a U.S.-French experiment that was scheduled to fly on a Soviet Mars mission. NASA also backed away from a commitment to contribute to Europe's Ulysses solar mission. And the U.S. alienated many countries by touting the Texas supercollider as an example of its scientific superiority--then begging foreign contributions when costs soared. So far, less than $200 million has been proffered, mostly in the form of hardware from India, Russia, and China.

The next big test of U.S. resolve to live up to its international commitments will be Washington's Space Station redesign. Under the existing plan, Europe is contributing a $2 billion laboratory module, and Japan and Canada are building major components. The White House, which wants a cheaper design, insists that the redesign will include the foreign projects. But if the station is downsized too much, "we would just have to tell them good-bye," argues John E. Pike, space policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. There's even a chance that Congress could scrap the station--and greatly harm prospects for future collaborations.

It has taken Europe's close-knit states four decades to iron out such issues. Adding such powers as the U.S. and Japan may make truly global collaboration a Herculean task. To get the job started, the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development is taking inventory of the megascience plans of its 24 member nations, including the U.S. and Japan, in hopes that simply making such information available will spark more partnerships. It's a modest first step but a necessary one if Big Science is to thrive in the future.Table: WHAT EUROPE DOES RIGHT

The U.S. can learn from the principles of collaboration used in building the

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

COST CONTROLS Equipment and services contracts go to low bidders--rather

than to higher-cost contractors in countries with the biggest investments.

PARTICIPATION Small countries that can't afford the minimum 4% share have

teamed up to participate.

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT Member countries agreed to a 20-year plan and an

initial 11-year budget. In the U.S., by contrast, Big Science budgets are

vulnerable to infighting in Congress every year.

SCIENTIFIC ACCESS Experiments are approved strictly on merit--so countries

with the biggest ownership can't force through pet projects.

MANAGEMENT Although selections are often balanced by nationality, top

managers are chosen first on ability. The U.S., by contrast, typically retains

management control of joint projects.

Jonathan B. Levine in Grenoble, France, with John Carey in Washington

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