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US may buy accelerator it can't afford to run

AMERICAN physicists are elated over President Reagan's decision to build the world's most powerful particle accelerator. They anticipate major advances in understanding the basic nature of matter. Energy secretary John Herrington will emphasize this when he asks Congress to pay for the $6 billion project later this month. But since Congress has been unwilling to adequately fund the operation of existing accelerators, the physicists' dreams may be wishful thinking. If Congress authorizes the project - which is not certain - they could acquire yet another world-beating facility without enough operating money to make the most of it.

The costs of doing all that physicists need to do have outgrown the resources that the country can devote to this. Expensive new accelerators should be international projects. To build such facilities without ensuring adequate support would be to confuse possession of a world-class tool with actually doing front-rank science. If the United States undertakes this project, it should do it right and seek all the international help it can get.

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Consider the two leading US accelerator centers - Fermilab, near Chicago, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) near San Francisco. Each is ready to probe the unknown with the most advanced accelerators of their type. Yet each is restrained, if not actually hamstrung, by parsimonious operating budgets.

Fermilab is beginning major experiments with its Tevatron proton accelerator. In this machine, protons and their antimatter equivalents, antiprotons, collide head-on with a total collision energy of 1,800 billion electron volts - or 1,800 GeV in physicists' shorthand. (An electron volt is the energy an electron gains when accelerated by a voltage of one volt.) The collisions provide the highest laboratory energy available for particle interactions today.

This gives the United States a leadership position in high-energy physics. But it's a struggle to exert that leadership since Congress has restricted the laboratory's operating budget to $171 million instead of the $191 million requested for the current (1987) fiscal year. Fermilab can still carry out major Tevatron work. But important related studies, engineering work, and planning for new experiments suffer.

Fermilab has had its first layoffs ever. With normal attrition, it will be down by more than 150 people at the beginning of March. Director Leon Lederman finds it hard to run the laboratory without those people. ``We're just praying we can keep this machine on right through the fiscal year,'' which ends Oct. 1, he says. He adds, ``It's no way to bring on a world-class machine.''

Likewise, at SLAC, a machine is ready to provide the world's most energetic electron-positron collisions with interaction energies of 100 GeV. But with SLAC's requested $115 million 1987 budget cut to $88 million, the machine will operate for three months or less this year. That's to say nothing of severely curtailed work at other SLAC facilities.

Director Burton Richter says that SLAC's requested fiscal 1988 operating budget would be adequate, but Congress may well cut the request again. Furthermore, he notes that if Congress approves the new machine, no one knows where the initial money will come from. If it were taken out of the high energy physics budget, he says, it would tighten the squeeze on operating costs.

The new machine - called a Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) - would cost $6 billion to build. In addition, its annual operating expenses would run to something like $200 million. It would also raise the energy for studying particle interactions some 20-fold.

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Here, surely, is a machine whose price and purpose warrant international collaboration. Physicists are convinced of this, as are key Energy Department officials. Potential partners, such as Japan, are interested.

Richter estimates foreign partners would contribute 15 to 25 percent of the facility's cost. To attract them, the United States must, itself, be committed to the project. A lukewarm commitment by Congress, with uncertainty as to long-term operational funding, would cool foreign interest.

True partnership includes a fair sharing of benefits as well as costs. That may not sit well with a Congress preoccupied with economic competition and leery of transferring American technology. But there are ventures where the benefits of partnership outweigh such concerns. The pursuit of basic knowledge is such a venture and the SSC is a good project with which to give international partnership a try.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.