PHYSICISTS probing matter's basic structure should match their ambitions to economic reality. Neither the United States nor Europe - the leaders in this research - can any longer afford to go it alone.
The House of Representatives has voted to cancel the next generation American particle accelerator - the $8.25 billion Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC) under construction at Waxahachie, Texas. Promoters are lobbying the Senate to reverse that decision. The outcome is uncertain.
Officials at the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) at Geneva likewise are unsure of financing for the comparable - although less costly - accelerator they hope to build. CERN member nations have already stretched their research budgets to the limit. There is little spare cash for CERN's dream machine.
Neither project seems viable without substantial foreign funding. Congress expects other nations to provide at least $1.7 billion for the SSC. Department of Energy solicitations have produced little aid so far. CERN promoters are also lobbying foreign friends. Both groups look to Japan for the "big bucks." Japan has coyly dodged their overtures.
The Japanese are wise to be wary. Both sets of promoters are chauvinistic at home. They tout domestic educational benefits and technological spinoffs. They warn of loss of scientific leadership if the projects are canceled. Abroad, these same promoters try to sell their programs as partnerships in pathfinding research.
This smacks of duplicity. Projects of this magnitude cannot credibly fly the banners of both nationalism and global partnership. High-energy physicists on both sides of the Atlantic should give up trying to do so.
There is no doubt these accelerators have considerable scientific merit. They would enable physicists to probe the next level of fundamental material structure. The more powerful SSC would probe farther than the CERN machine. But it would be a totally new facility and cost several times as much as the European accelerator. CERN would build its machine in an existing tunnel at an existing laboratory. The trade-off is a trickier design and somewhat less energy than the SSC.
American and European physicists should rethink their strategy. They should pool their resources instead of promoting competing projects that are hard to sell at home or abroad. Whether they focus on the SSC, the proposed CERN accelerator, or a totally new machine is irrelevant at this point. What is essential is that they and their governments recognize the need for a true international partnership.