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`Big science' trend worries experts. They say huge costs could undermine other research

The United States is entering a period when it will increasingly have to pay top dollar to conduct top-flight science. This trend has been gathering momentum for years. But some analysts expect it to accelerate, confronting the nation with difficult choices as the government tries to set priorities among large-scale and small-scale research projects at a time of tight budgets.

At the moment, these analysts say, the country is ill-prepared to make such choices, which could affect the long-term prospects for the economy, science education, and the quality of research itself.

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``We are clearly in a new era'' of research, says Christopher Hill, a science policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service. ``Individual projects are taking up larger fractions of research budgets within disciplines and within federal funding for science as a whole.''

Some of the projects most often cited include:

The superconducting supercollider. Some 25 states submitted proposals this week for 35 sites for the mammoth particle accelerator. The machine is designed to give physicists even deeper insights into the make-up of matter. And by reaching energy levels thought to exist in the first few instants following the formation of the universe, scientists hope to make further progress toward tracing the four forces of nature back to one unified ``superforce.'' Estimates of the SSC's cost runs around $4.4 billion, and it would be completed by 1996.

The ``great observatories'' series of spacecraft. These involve four spacecraft housing instruments to observe the universe above the limiting effects of Earth's atmosphere. The combined price tag on these missions is about $3.4 billion.

Mapping the human genome. This project would be aimed at cataloging the entire sequence of DNA in a human being. DNA is a chemical that serves as the blueprint for the form and functioning of plants, animals, and humans. Proponents of the project say that it would provide invaluable data for basic biology research and help medical researchers identify the mechanisms, and perhaps therapies, for diseases linked to genes. Depending on assumptions about technology and manpower, estimates of the cost range from $60 million to $6 billion over 10 years.

Cataloging the plants of North America. While this project, at $6 million to $7.5 million over a 12- to 15-year period, seems Lilliputian compared to the SSC, it still would take up a big portion of the budget for botany. The goal is to provide baseline data for conservation and land management efforts, in addition to botanical research.

Many factors are raising the cost of cutting-edge research, especially in disciplines like physics, astronomy, and biology, which are trying to answer some of the most fundamental questions of science. One reason is that ``all the simple questions have been answered. It's a reflection of scientific progress,'' says John M. Logsdon, director of the graduate program in science, technology, and public policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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In other cases, technology is allowing scientists to consider projects that might have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. Other factors cited include the growth in research that cuts across disciplines; a tendency among some scientists to see one megaproject as a more effective way to nail down research money than a more diffuse program of smaller projects; and politics and national prestige.

``How many big guys can the nation afford?'' asks Robert F. Sekerka, dean of the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The concern is that big projects will soak up money that would go to smaller-scale research, especially in areas that may have a more direct impact on the nation's long-term economic competitiveness.

Another concern deals with education. ``I'm worried about SSC-type projects,'' says Columbia University physicist Gerald Feinberg. ``The time scale is very, very long. A student may not be able to [complete] the experiment during his graduate career. That is a significant change in graduate education that is not good. Students need to carry things through from beginning to end. Some students may be put off by that and turn to other fields.''

Finally, the growth in ``big science'' may bring with it new responsibilities and pressures on the scientific community that may affect the quality of the research produced, says Edward Haggett, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Absent vast increases in the amount of money the federal government is willing to sink into basic research, analysts say that cost sharing has been one approach to funding large projects - either within a country or among countries. It has met with mixed success.

But to Harold Raveche, dean of science at RPI, the underlying issue is one of making choices, especially between disciplines, a task that the scientific community has found difficult. ``We have to be able to set priorities and couple them to the national need.''

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