Demise of the Superconducting Super Collider

Article excerpt

I was invited to provide this brief commentary about the federal government's decision in October 1993 to discontinue construction of the Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator of unsurpassed power, size, and sophistication. The collider, which was being constructed south of Dallas, Texas, was arguably the largest science project in history. A primary goal was to find a particle called the Higgs Boson, which has so far eluded physicists but which theory indicates is the key to understanding what gives particles mass.

I administered a $100 million competitive research program for SSC-related research funded by the state of Texas. Over $44 million was awarded to approximately 100 universities in 34 states and Canada. Because I had the unpleasant task of terminating these grants and contracts, I strongly suspect that I am too much of an insider and still too deep in the trenches to present a totally dispassionate, accurate, erudite analysis of the fate of the SSC, one which historians would regard favorably. Having qualified myself and forewarned the reader that I am unwilling to share all my views at this time, there are some opinions that I will discuss.

It has been my observation that when funds are tight, a frequent political action is to "slay the wounded." When did the SSC become thought of as wounded? I was aware from what appeared in the popular press that it had occurred even before I arrived at the Commission in April 1991. A political cartoon by Bubba Flint showing a man labeled "Congress" with a large mallet labeled "Super Collider budget cuts" appeared in the February 11, 1991, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A sampling of newspaper articles from November 1990 through March 1991 chronicles the cutbacks suffered in the 101st Congress and the turning tide for the SSC. The articles in this collection include those entitled "Supercollider is a superstar, so far," USA Today; "Democrats mull cuts in Super Collider funds," Houston Post; "Backers of Texas Supercollider hope to find subatomic particles and congressional funding," The Wall Street Journal; "Budget barrier could slow 54 mile track for atomic particles," Atlanta Journal/Constitution; and "Congressional aides cast skeptical eye on collider," Dallas Morning News.

I recall a luncheon conversation in September 1991 with a university governmental relations person from a state with a congressional representative who was very vocally opposed to the SSC. In her opinion, the Congressman was busy tilting at windmills, and the issue appeared to be neither the SSC nor the quality of the science but the publicity that could be drawn from opposing it.

The first, most obvious blow for the SSC occurred in June 1992, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the project. I was in DC the week after it happened and visited with a friend who is affiliated with a major news organization. Her comment to me then was that the SSC would live only as long as George Bush was president. Clearly the project was in trouble long before October 1993. I refer the interested reader to an analysis by Gary Taubes in the October 26, 1993, New York Times, entitled "The Super-collider: How big science lost favor and fell." With one exception, I believe it is a very good accounting of the SSC's history.

Although many contributing factors to the demise of the SSC have been cited by numerous observers, both knowledgeable and naive, I would like to discuss two here.

Number one is the design change proposed for the machine in 1989 and approved in 1990. The project cost estimate submitted to Congress in early 1987 was $5.3 billion (in FY88 dollars), with a completion date of 1996. The design change proposed to the U.S. Department of Energy by the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory in December 1989, coupled with the estimates for detector design and construction, yielded an estimated cost of $7 to $8 billion. From fiscal year 1991 forward, successive years of less-than-full funding yielded a stretch-out that was predicted to take the total cost to $10 billion. …