Even as it appears that federal funding for the $8.2 billion superconducting supercollider will be spared the budget-cutter's axe, there are growing signs that the public facade of scientists' support for the project is developing deep cracks, even among physicists.
The huge machine, planned for completion by 2000, is designed to hurl subatomic particles in two whirling beams in opposite directions, at almost the speed of light, around a huge circular tunnel below a prairie in Waxahachie, Texas, then let them smash into each other with a force approaching the cataclysmic conditions of the Big Bang that began the universe.Many scientists believe that the work could be crucial in providing answers to fundamental questions about the origins of matter and the forces that govern it. Others think the colossal amount of money involved could be better spent in other ways.
After a strong show of support from scientists both in the United States and abroad, the Senate recently voted to restore the $550 million in funding for next year that the House had voted to kill, and SSC scientists are confident the funding will emerge intact from a conference committee in the next few weeks.
"There was a tremendous outpouring of support by scientists" after the House vote, said Roy Schwitters, a former Harvard physicist who directs the SSC project. "This is forefront science where there had been a commitment from the government. If this got turned back, that would be bad for all of science."
Particle physicists "have a very strong party line" in favor of the SSC, said Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., who has openly criticized the project. "If you go against it, you're a traitor."
Many scientists say the question of continuing the SSC project centers on three major questions:
- Will such a huge project cut into the funding for other areas of science and produce less return?
- Would cancelling it decrease international confidence in the United States as a dependable partner and erode U.S. leadership in basic science?
- Are there more economical or more productive ways to attack the questions it is designed to answer?
Scientists are divided on all three questions. Many are concerned that the huge SSC investment - some critics say its per-year expenditure rivals all other non-medical research funding put together (supporters dispute those figures) - may endanger other research.
The SSC would be "an unwise use of federal resources for research and development," said Daniel Kevles, a professor of the history of science at the California Institute of Technology. "It benefits a relatively small fraction of the scientific community and has little social or economic payoff. I sympathize with the scientists who do that work, but at a time of economic difficulty in the country at large, my objections are intensified."