Diversity Needed in Federal Support of Basic Science

APS News

February, 1994
William Happer

Diversity Needed in Federal Support of Basic Science After the SSC

The cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) by the United States Congress was bad news for all of science. It came several years after Congress authorized construction of the SSC, after the good citizens of Texas had sold a billion dollars in bonds to provide their contribution, and after many dedicated people--scientists, engineers, machinists, typists--made the commitment to go to Waxahatchie to help build this great instrument. Now all of them are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives in very difficult times.

The single most important cause for the demise of the SSC was the budget deficit and Congressional determination to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal virtue. While more deserving sacrificial lambs come to mind, the principle of financial responsibility was good. What was inexcusable was the mythology created by some congressional opponents to justify their attacks. Cost overruns, bad management, insuperable technological problems, and the failure to pursue foreign support were just some of the allegations. What a shame that those who took such an interest in SSC management were not more attentive when savings-and-loans were building up hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for the taxpayers of the United States.

The personnel at the SSC managed to make good progress on construction while coping with stifling layers of management and human waves of investigators, each determined to send damaging reports back to Washington. After less than $100 million of a $1000 million conventional construction budget had been spent, one investigative team made a straight-line extrapolation of costs to the end of the project and reported that an overrun of $630 million would occur if corrective management actions were not taken. Even as the management corrections had been made and less than $100 million had been spent, an SSC opponent told the American people on network TV news, "The SSC has overrun by $630 million and you ain't seen nothing yet." Under-budget costs in other areas of conventional construction were ignored in a classic game of "heads I win, tails you lose." Washington bureaucrats with rented potted plants in their marbled offices reacted with shock and outrage to revelations that the SSC was paying for rented plants in its converted warehouse in Texas.

The SSC was originally proposed to reclaim world preeminence in high energy physics for the United States. As the full magnitude of the project began to sink in, a decision was made to internationalize the SSC. It was clear that the United States would have to give as well as receive if we were to be taken seriously by prospective international partners. However, proposals to use U.S. high energy physics funds to help construct accelerators in Japan or Europe were opposed by most of our accelerator physics laboratories. It would be ironic if the first successful international scientific megaproject should turn out to be the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), supported more by those of a practical bent than by idealistic hunters of the Higgs boson.

Contractors who saw every magnet or klystron built abroad as a smaller profit for themselves put enormous pressure on Congress not to permit meaningful foreign participation. "Let them dig the ditches or string the wires," said one helpful legislator as talks were underway to woo Japanese support. The constant public attack on the SSC made the negotiations for foreign support doubly difficult, but steady progress was made, especially along the Pacific Rim, by both Secretary Watkins and Secretary Hazel O'Leary at the Department of Energy.

It could hardly be expected that hard-pressed scientists in chemistry, geology, biology or other fields of physics would have been as enthusiastic about the SSC as the high-energy physics community. However, the job of defending the SSC was made doubly difficult by the insistence of some high-energy physicists that the SSC had to be supported in addition to everything else that was going on or hoped for at Fermilab, at SLAC, at Brookhaven, etc. While others in America-- from construction workers, to military personnel, to materials scientists-- were coping with layoffs, it was argued that a substantial buildup of new scientists and engineers was essential for the SSC and the well-deserved growth of existing programs. This attitude did not win friends in the rest of the scientific community, and it made it easy for SSC opponents to pose as defenders of less favored fields of science.

This is no time for Shadenfreude by sister fields of science. With the demise of the SSC has come hard times for all of basic science. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." While it is true that the SSC would have made contributions to the larger economy--for example, by giving industry the know- how to mass produce superconducting magnets--the most important rationale was the age-old quest to understand the innermost secrets of nature. This rationale was hard to sell for the SSC, and it is becoming hard to sell for the rest of basic research.

We see some Congressional opponents of the SSC now blaming basic research for many of the current megaproblems of the United States--for example, the lack of international competitiveness and the budget deficit. In their determination to get the country moving again, some have become enamored by "strategic research." Few would question that strategic research is needed to improve the well-being of our fellow citizens. Indeed, the Federal Government has been spending close to $80 billion per year on research, mostly of the strategic kind. U.S. industry has been spending even more than the federal government on strategic research. Perhaps some 15% of federal research expenditures are devoted to basic research, which has been the source of the most important innovations in the modern world. The electrical industry, x- rays, the transistor, the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, antibiotics, the polymerase chain reaction, the p-53 cancer-anticancer gene--the list of payoffs from basic research goes on and on.

Even if the Congress were to eliminate all basic research and use the funds for good strategic research instead of pet projects (a.k.a. pork), the strategic research budget of the country would increase by less than 10%. Who can forget the strategic research on biology in Stalin's Soviet Union, pushed along by Trofim Lysenko with promises of new croplands in the far North? Not much later we watched baffled scientists and villagers constructing backyard steel furnaces during Chairman Mao's great leap forward--in fact an economic disaster few countries but China could have endured.

Federal funds for research, basic and strategic, are limited and priorities must be set. This task is hard enough with strategic research--how do we partition limited funds between research on cancer and development of information highways? The choices are all the harder for basic research, because the payoffs are so unpredictable. But so what? The future of small, start-up companies is also unpredictable. Far more small companies end with a whimper, rather than growing into a Xerox or a Microsoft. For solid, predictable performance, invest in blue chip stocks, the equivalent of strategic research, and shun small, start-up companies, the equivalent of basic research. Nonetheless, the biggest payoffs have almost always come to those with the courage to make diversified investments in small, risky companies. The wisest choose a balanced mix of investments, ranging from bonds and blue chips to small companies.

Our national research portfolio needs balance and diversification just as much as a private investment portfolio. The main component should be strategic research, as it always has been. However, we would be making a big mistake to cut deeply into our limited basic research investment to beef up some currently popular area of strategic research. A few narrow strategic choices, made by science policy experts, are likely to miss many revolutionary new opportunities. We must not let American Lysenkos slash into the already limited funds for basic research.

We should protect diverse basic research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health, the Armed Services and other Federal Agencies. The reason is not to maintain the status quo for a small, privileged segment of society. Indeed, serious science involves an unceasing challenge of the status quo. The reason is to ensure that, in an increasingly competitive world, the United States maintains one of its most important advantages: a major piece of the "endless frontier" of science. We can fix what is wrong with the United States without damaging what is right.

William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University, was the Director of the Office of Energy Research at the Department of Energy from 1991 to 1993.

Copyright 1994 The American Physical Society