Big Projects in Big Trouble: International Cooperation in Physics and Space Research Has Been Less Than Harmonious

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International cooperation in physics and space research has been less than harmonious.

For several years, politicians and scientists alike have proclaimed that "globalization" is the future of science. No longer would any single nation undertake ambitious projects such as the Superconducting Super Collider, the $11 billion particle accelerator canceled by Congress in 1993. Rather, the costs of big science would by shared by countries working in tandem.

But the bold new era of global science is turning out to be filled with political and economic pitfalls, as indicated by the uncertainties hovering over three multinational megaprojects:

* The Large Hadron Collider, an accelerator planned for Europe's particle-physics center near Geneva, has been the focus of frequent budget disputes. The $3 billion project is expected to be financed largely by European nations, with additional contributions from the United States, Russia and Japan. However, Germany's decision to reduce its share sparked denunciations from other participants and calls for the United States to play a larger role.

* The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, also has been a subject of contention. The 100-foot-high nuclear-fusion reactor currently in the design stage, could cost as much as $15 billion, a large portion of which will be paid by the project's host country. The United States and Russia, and more recently France and Germany, have expressed reluctance to provide a site for ITER, leaving Japan the most likely candidate.

* The International Space Station scheduled for assembly in orbit between 1997 and 2002, has undergone numerous changes in its budget and design. Concerns persist about the ability of a cash-strapped Russia to participate fully in the project. Early this year, the United States rejected a Russian proposal to incorporate their Mir space station into the project but agreed to provide additional shuttle flights to reduce Russian launch costs.

Missing from such projects is precisely the element that spurred a great deal of scientific research in previous decades: international competition. The Hadron Collider, for example was conceived as Europe's answer to America's Super Collider; after the U.S. machine was canceled, the European project lost political momentum.

"The idea of international cooperation on big science projects has a nice, warm sound to it," says physicist Robert Park, director of the American Physical Society's Washington office. …