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SSC: an iffy proposition in Congress.

SSC: An iffy proposition in Congress

Big science is now very big politics. The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a 40-trillion-electron-volt proton accelerator, will be the largest physics laboratory ever built--if construction is authorized. By the time it is completed it is likely to cost $5 billion or $6 billion. And it is enmeshed in politics as no physics laboratory ever was before.

As became evident at the National SSC Symposium in Denver last week, a wide coalition of federal, state and local officials and nonofficial citizens is being put together to support the project. Yet, the meeting heard, SSC is in a certain amount of trouble in Congress. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) gave a rather gloomy assessment of its chances. Energy Secretary John S. Herrington pronounced it "in jeopardy' and urged his audience to mount a campaign of support.

Pending now in Congress are two bills related to the SSC. One is a special authorization bill that would authorize $1.1 billion in expenditures for the SSC over the next three years. According to one of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr., (R-N.M.), it now has 253 cosponsors. However, as several people at the meeting pointed out, an authorization says you can spend money but does not guarantee that you'll get it. What puts money in the account is an appropriation. The current appropriation for the SSC is for one year. It is now before a Senate-House conference and will amount to either $25 million or $35 million.

With 253 cosponsors, can the SSC be in trouble? Even representatives who are virtually uncategorical in support--for example, Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-Tex.), who said: "We don't have a choice; we have to build it'--sense problems ahead.

The difficulties arise from budgetary concerns: Where is the money to come from, and how will it affect the rest of the country's scientific program? They also arise in some part from differing perceptions of the project on the part of administration spokesmen and members of Congress. And some difficulty arises from a perception that much of the support is softer than it seems.

"I think much support is parochial,' Domenici remarked. And, referring to the 25 states with 36 site proposals still under consideration, he said, "They all can't get it.' He suggested that the Department of Energy delay its site-selection procedure (SN: 6/30/84, p.409; 10/17/87, p.247) until after Congress considers the bills. This got a negative reception from the four state governors and one lieutenant governor at the meeting. Govs. Richard F. Celeste (Ohio), James G. Martin (N.C.), George S. Mickelson (S.D.) and Roy Romer (Colo.) and Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine (N.Y.) unanimously condemned the idea. The present administration should complete the site-selection process, they said. Otherwise it could become an issue in the 1988 presidential campaign.

The Reagan administration touts the SSC is nationalistic terms as a boost for American competitiveness, both in technology and in science. Herrington said that many American particle physicists now work abroad. "If we build it,' he said, "they'll all come here.'

On the other hand, the administration talks of soliciting foreign contributions. Members of Congress who addressed the meeting suggested that Congress would find the deal sweeter if foreign financial commitments were included.

Yet at least one commentator wondered how the administration could talk so nationalistically in one breath and solicit foreign participation in the next--especially, as Lundine and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said, when the United States is cold-shouldering the most interested foreign party, Canada.

New York had proposed two "international sites,' one stradding its border with Quebec, the other wholly in the United States. Only the second is still officially in the running, but the Canadians remain interested in it, according to Bernard Margolis of McGill University in Montreal, who represented Canadian organizations at the meeting. Margolis told SCIENCE NEWS of possible support from the Canadian federal government, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec and even the city of Montreal. Canada could offer construction money--up to 10 percent, according to Boehlert--and inexpensive electricity that would substantially lessen operating costs. However, they complain that the Energy Department won't talk to them. As Boehlert put it, "Considering the new free-trade agreement, protons are the only item unable to cross the border without interference.'

Money for the SSC has to come from somewhere, and that, as all the members present agreed, will give Congress the painful duty of setting priorities among science programs and other domestic spending. However, Hall presented a suggestion on how to get the money without disturbing the rest of the science budget: Abrogate the Japanese Defense Treaty, under which since 1945 the United States has guaranteed the defense of Japan in return for Japanese demilitarization. Hall thinks it's time the Japanese undertook their own defense. "That would save $10 billion a year, enough to build two SSCs,' he said. That particular suggestion may not fly, but there could be similar ones in the offing.
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Title Annotation:Superconducting Super Collider
Author:Thomsen, Dietrick E.
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 12, 1987
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