Texans Mourn Result of Collision Between Science and the Deficit
IN Waxahatchie, Texas, 300 of America's leading high-energy physicists don't know if they should be thinking about subatomic particles or xeroxing copies of their resume.
The project on which they are working, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), suffered a near-fatal blow this week when the House of Representatives for the second time this year refused to provide any funds for the giant atom-smasher.
Now Texas politicians and other supporters are regrouping to see if there is a way to rescue the controversial project.
Crews already have completed about 20 percent of the atom-smasher. The final price tag for the SSC, which was supposed to be completed by 2002, was estimated at $11 billion.
While House and Senate negotiators try to work out the project's future, 2,100 employees of the SSC are now in limbo, uncertain of when they will be officially terminated or get their final paychecks.
``The federal government made this commitment, and it forced people to make long- term career and financial decisions,'' complains Russ Wylie, director of external affairs for the SSC Laboratory. ``For the House to pull the rug out from under them, I don't think people are going to want to get into another long-term large science project, when the government's commitment is so meaningless.''
Asked about his own job prospects, Mr. Wylie replies, ``I don't know. Do you have any leads?''
The House's decision to cut off funding by an almost 2 to 1 margin was a blow not only to scientists but also to Texas politicians who have lobbied hard for the project.
The controversial SSC, which has cost federal taxpayers $1.6 billion since construction began, has been a hot topic of debate in Congress since June 1992, when the House first voted to kill funding for the 54-mile-long underground atom- smasher. The House voted again this summer to kill the project, but a victory in the Senate kept the project alive. Now, many observers believe the project cannot be revived.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas led opposition to the project. In a letter to colleagues, Senator Bumpers wrote that if Congress is serious about reducing the deficit, it must oppose ``extraordinarily expensive projects that are of relatively little worth.''
Gov. Ann Richards (D), Sens. Phil Gramm (R) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), and other Texas politicos tried hard to save the project. But their clout in the Democratic-controlled Congress was diminished by the defeat earlier this year of then-Sen. Bob Krueger (D) of Texas. Thus the SSC lost in the House even though all but 2 of the 30 House members from Texas supported it.
One of the Texas opponents was Rep. Bill Archer (R). ``Even if the project had been in a different state, Archer would have voted against it,'' says Tom Hoopes, an aide to the congressman. ``At a different time, he might have voted for it, but given our current fiscal circumstances, he had no choice but to vote against it.''
While SSC opponents argue that the project is too expensive, supporters say the cost of closing the super collider will be huge. ``The process of terminating the SSC will cost well over a billion dollars and you will get nothing for it,'' says Steve Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Nobel Prize-winning scientist predicts a spate of legal battles after the project is shut down. ``The mother of all lawsuits may be the state of Texas against the US government,'' Dr. Weinberg says, pointing out that the state invested $400 million in the project.
Weinberg still hopes that funding will be found for the project. If it is not, he believes the US will fall behind other countries in basic scientific research.
``If it is true that the SSC is dead, then you would have to have grave doubts as to whether the US is able to have a responsible science policy,'' Weinberg says.