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The SSC Crowns 50 Years of Advances

The Superconducting Supercollider, the $6 billion particle accelerator whose construction was just endorsed by the President, is inevitable. The only serious questions surrounding it for the past half dozen years have been when and where. Why inevitable? Because the SSC is the unarguable means of answering the most fundamental scientific questions we can formulate: How are the forces of nature related, and what does that tell us about the underlying structure and behavior of matter? Progress in

By | March 23, 1987

The Superconducting Supercollider, the $6 billion particle accelerator whose construction was just endorsed by the President, is inevitable. The only serious questions surrounding it for the past half dozen years have been when and where.

Why inevitable? Because the SSC is the unarguable means of answering the most fundamental scientific questions we can formulate: How are the forces of nature related, and what does that tell us about the underlying structure and behavior of matter? Progress in the past few years has given us increasing confidence that an experimental device of the power of the SSC may finally provide evidence and details of the Grand Unified Theory—the scientific payoff of 75 years of atomic and subatomic physics. And it's also becoming clear that we're ready and impatient to move onto that new level.

I think there are three essential issues that drove the President's decision to recommend funding for the SSC.

First, it is a meticulously thought-out, sound scientific program. It enjoys broad endorsement by the physics community because it so directly meets a compelling need. In the early 1980s, physicists went through painful reassessments of priorities for accelerators and, when the smoke cleared, rallied behind the SSC. In effect, they were willing to put all of their eggs—and their future—in one basket called SSC. While the arguments over "big" versus "little" science—the decades'-old tug-of-war between individual researchers and groups of researchers such as the experimenters at the SSC—will no doubt continue, there will be no quarrel with the importance of the objectives of the SSC.

Second, the SSC is affordable. In 1982 the federal government spent $6.5 billion for basic research; in 1988 the proposed budget is $10 billion. The level of federal support for basic research—which has grown by more than 50 percent over the past six years— reflects an intensifying national obsession with science. The cost for the SSC construction, spread out over a decade, will require about a doubling of the current budget for high-energy physics. Compare that to what's been happening, for example, with the budget for the National Science Foundation, which will have itself tripled from 1980 to 1992, and we see that such growth—in both rate and magnitude—is manageable and not unprecedented.

We will hear nervous arguments that the SSC will take money away from other important science, yet the evidence simply isn't there. If anything has not been a zero-sum proposition, it's basic research, as the numbers above show. If science were just another entitlement program, arguing for some fixed percentage of the budget, then that could be the case. But these days science is funded in response to its quality and its importance.

Clearly, better science and greater national dependence on science has attracted generous funding. There is no reason to suggest that vigorous funding for the SSC will not be accompanied by equally responsive funding for other fields of science that offer comparable promise.

One additional point: There's little question that the SSC will be an international center for science, because it will be unique. We've always known that unlike the current generation of accelerators, in which Fermilab competes with SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) and with CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics), the SSC will compete only with nature. That means the SSC will attract the best physicists in the world to work in the United States—a pattern that since the 1930s has enriched this country's intellectual and economic life to a remarkable degree. That was certainly a factor in deciding to step out front to make sure the center was in the United States. It's also likely that the SSC will attract substantial funding from one or more other countries that are eager to share in the undertaking.

Finally, there's an importance to the SSC that transcends physics and even science per se. It reflects an underlying national understanding that science is the fountainhead of American technological competitiveness and must, therefore, be accorded high public priority. The most important aspect of the SSC may well be the message it sends to a generation of young people, a message that emphasizes a national focus on knowledge, on excellence, and on leadership.

But perhaps even more significant, consider the message we would be sending if we failed to grasp this opportunity. The particle accelerator was invented in this country and as it evolved it generated dozens of Nobel Prizes for American scientists. We now have a choice: to crown 50 years of advances, or to step back from the frontier we blazed our way to. The President recognized the opportunity and, when the decision was finally brought to him, quickly chose to move forward. It's hard to see how a leader could have done otherwise.

Keyworth was science adviser to President Reagan from 1981 to 1985. His address is The Keyworth Co., 3050 K St., N. W, Suite 360, Washington, DC 20007.

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