The Future of the Superconducting Super Collider

December 10, 1993

By Secy. of Energy Hazel O'Leary and U.S. Rep George E. Brown Jr.

The superconducting super collider as we know it is now dead, yet the quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world around us lives on. The scientific questions that compelled development of the SSC will not suddenly disappear, nor are they likely to be answered by anything other than a "big science" endeavor during the next century. For any such effort to succeed, however, this hypothetical future project--and perhaps all future big science projects--will need a level of international, political and public support that remained elusive for the super collider.

The SSC suffered for having failed from the outset to incorporate international funding and participation. The Reagan and Bush administrations made critical early decisions about the technical design and site location as if the SSC were purely a national project. Only later did they proclaim it to be an international collaboration--with a goal of nearly $2 billion in foreign funding. Is it any wonder that substantial foreign funding never materialized? This shortfall eroded congressional support, which made foreign involvement even less likely, accelerating the project's downward spiral.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that foreign participation must be incorporated into large-scale science and technology projects from the very beginning, when prospective partners still have a say in why, where, when and how such projects will be pursued. Not so obvious is how we as a nation will make and keep such international agreements in the future. Although the United States has determined that it cannot fund projects of this scale alone, neither have we demonstrated that we can undertake such endeavors with others. The abrupt termination of the super collider adds to a long list of large international projects that the United States has suddenly and unilaterally killed or drastically altered, including the Ulysses solar satellite program, the solvent-refined coal project and the space station. This embarrassing legacy raises serious questions about the reliability of the United States in international research projects.

Although Congress intensely criticized the super collider project for failing to receive substantial foreign funding, it was never clear that Congress was prepared to share with other nations the jobs and technological benefits that would have flowed from a true partnership. Is it realistic for the United States to want all the "good" jobs and all the critical technological components of a project like the SSC, while also insisting that other nations put billions of dollars on the table?

This raises a related concern: Political support for large projects appears to be directly proportional to the parochial benefits received, yet spreading the wealth of large scientific projects invites appropriate criticism of pork-barreling. When 25 states were competing for the SSC site, the level of political support was enormous. Elected officials nationwide--from senators to city supervisors--heralded the project as vital for the United States and also for their individual states. Once Texas was selected as the project site, however, this overwhelming interest vanished in a flash.

Such phenomena raise an extremely difficult issue for the future. Specifically, how can the nation stick with a decision that has scientific and technical merit before and after the potential economic benefits for individual regions of the country are determined? This issue is especially vexing for projects like the SSC, which require a long-term congressional commitment. It is further complicated both by the turnover of elected officials--which cripples institutional memory and commitments--and by the existing annual budget process, which encourages constant second-guessing of political decisions.

Finally, there is a lesson to be learned about public support for fundamental science. The super collider never captured broad support from the American public, in no small part because its scientific promise was difficult to understand even by those who are scientifically literate. As studies have shown, science education in the United States lags far behind that of other industrialized nations. This suggests that a key to sustaining U.S. excellence in basic research will be aggressive efforts to improve scientific and technical literacy at every level of education.

With the help of a blue-ribbon panel on the future of high-energy physics, we are now putting the pieces back together from a project that blew apart after an extraordinary investment of human and national resources. The superconducting super collider held the promise of taking humanity to the next level of understanding about the origins of the universe and the fundamental dynamics of matter. Unless we are intent on stopping the pursuit of the knowledge that it would have delivered, we must find a way to achieve a truly international framework for large scientific and technological projects.

This will be the enduring challenge as the cranes and bulldozers in Waxahachie, Texas, come to a halt, as we attempt to soften the landing for SSC employees and as we look for ways to continue the extraordinary journey of human inquiry that has brought us the scientific knowledge that underpins our society and fuels our economy.