The Supercollider: It's Crunch Time

By smashing protons together with titanic force, the mammoth particle accelerator known as the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) is supposed to help physicists unlock the deepest mysteries of matter--perhaps the very nature of the universe itself. The $8.25 billion machine will transform the farmland near Waxahachie, Tex., into the premier world center for high-energy physics. But long before it can quash its first proton, the supercollider faces a tougher challenge: winning the battle of the budget. A small but determined group of lawmakers wants to derail the project now, before engineers begin digging the SSC's huge tunnel.

Nearly everyone agrees that the project will have a big scientific payoff, but the question is, at what price? "As soon as you hear the words `secrets of the universe,' hang on to your wallet," says longtime critic Rustum Roy, professor of materials science at Pennsylvania State University. Sure enough, the Energy Dept.'s official estimate has nearly doubled since the original 1988 quote of $4.4 billion. That's partly the result of a decision to make the collider more powerful by enlarging its 8,652 dipole magnets, which will guide the SSC's high-energy proton beams around the collider's 54-mile-long ring. And not everyone believes the official estimate--notably some officials at the Office of Management & Budget. Last fall, for instance, an independent Energy Dept. panel pegged the SSC's cost at more than $11 billion.

PREMATURE? Nonetheless, the SSC's backers on the Hill and in the Bush Administration are forging ahead. They're stepping up their lobbying and trying to boost the project's budget for fiscal 1992 to $534 million, up from $243 million this year. That would let construction start in earnest, keeping the U. S. ahead of a planned European supercollider in Geneva. Opponents argue that the SSC will soak up funds better spent elsewhere. "There's a lot of competing good science," says Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N. Y.), who had tried to nab the machine for New York State. "I'm not sure this measures up."

Foes are pinning their arguments on an investigation that was launched by the long-dormant House science, research, and technology oversight subcommittee, which is controlled by two SSC skeptics, Chairman Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) and ranking Republican Boehlert. They have ordered a sweeping probe--with results due this spring--of the Supercollider's cost estimates and scientific payoff. "We want to see if the race to construction was premature," says Wolpe,

Already, Energy has begun building a magnet development lab outside Waxahachie, hired 1,050 scientists and staff, and bought thousands of acres needed for the collider's main ring, which will be buried 150 feet deep. It has also tentatively picked the design for one of the two huge general-purpose detectors that will try to make sense of the maelstrom of particles created as the machine forces proton streams to collide.

Now, particle physicists are debating whether they should make a change to increase the size of the so-calledquadrupole magnets, which will focus the collider's proton beams. Larger focusing magnets would build in the potential for extra performance--so scientists could eventually push the accelerator to energy levels far beyond its original design limits. But that could add about $100 million to the cost, and officials are reluctant to do that. "We will build the SSC for $8.25 billion,"says SSC Director Roy F. Schwitters. "We won't come back and ask for more money unless everyone agrees to it."Beyond the cost issue, critics say the project probably can't comply with two provisos Congress imposed when it gave the SSC a green light. At least a third of the financing was supposed to come from nonfederal sources, and the accelerator wasn't supposed to siphon money from other science projects. In the heated competition in 1988 to win the project, Texas prevailed over rival states by agreeing to put up $1 billion, which leaves $2 billion more to come from other sources. Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore and SSC officials have been talking up the supercollider's potential benefits to international science and rattling a tin cup in Europe and Asia--to no avail so far.

'BE HONEST.' The Administration now says that other countries won't pitch in until the U. S. shows its resolve by moving ahead. But even that may not be enough. One attraction for foreign countries would be having their industry build some of the SSC's components. But some powerful members of Congress, such as Senate Energy Committee Chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), insist that no foreign companies be allowed to build high-tech components for the SSC--even though Schwitters acknowledges that the U. S. lags behind in some areas of advanced magnet technology. "We have to show there will be reasonable foreign participation or be honest enough to debate whether or not we really need it," concedes Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex.), whose district is home to the SSC.

Few legislators believe that the Energy Dept.'s other promise will be fulfilled, either. To get their big 1992 increase, SSC backers will have to fight off the competing claims of other worthy projects, many of which have powerful advocates. Increasingly, for example, Corporate America is asking that federal research-and-development dollars be spent on commercial technologies such as advanced materials and semiconductors. "Unless we take care of the commercial well-being of the country first, we won't have the funds to do the prestige projects," warns George M. C. Fisher, chairman and CEO of Motorola Inc. and chairman of the business-funded Council on Competitiveness. Council officials suggest slowing funds for the collider.

Still, critics don't expect to stop the project this year. The Energy Dept. has spread 8,759 SSC contracts among companies in 44 states--a little pork for everyone. And the Texan-in-Chief in the White House and the powerful Texas delegation on the Hill are still strong backers.

So as the 1992 budget winds through Congress, the most likely result is a familiar scenario: As it often does with defense or space projects, Congress is likely to slow the pace of the SSC, trimming the annual cost and ducking major decisions. Trouble is, every year of delay drives up the cost, increases the chances that top scientists will leave, and handicaps the U. S. in the race to solve the mysteries of matter. If that happens, the U. S. might spend billions and still lose one of science's biggest prizes.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.