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US Looks to Partners To Preserve Its Edge In `Big Science'

AMERICAN physicists who lost heart when Congress killed the Super Collider particle accelerator project last year now may have new cause for hope in Europe.

CERN - the European Particle Physics Center - has invited the United States to join its proposed project to build a similar, although less powerful, machine at its site near Geneva.

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Presidential science adviser John Gibbons says, ``We were delighted at the invitation [and] it is under active consideration.''

United States Rep. George Brown Jr. (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, says this ``has become a subject of considerable discussion.''

In separate meetings with the press during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, both men explained that they view partnership in CERN's program from a larger perspective than just the pursuit of ``cutting-edge'' physics. It could become a prototype for internationalizing the kind of ``big science'' the US no longer can afford to fund, but which it also cannot neglect without eventually weakening its own scientific vigor.

Mr. Brown explains that ``the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was terminated [both] because of escalating cost and the lack of international participation.'' Making a similar point, Dr. Gibbons notes that Congress did not turn its back on science in killing the SSC. It sent a signal that resources should be used wisely.

Such comments reflect a growing perception among Washington policymakers, and in the scientific community, that wise use of resources means no single nation should carry the financial burden of a big science project whose main payoff is to add to the common store of knowledge. Gibbons says that, because the Clinton administration believes this, it ``has been avidly interested in the internationalization of science.'' He notes, wryly, that ``we attempted to do that with the SSC, but it was too far gone in other directions.''

Herein lies the main challenge for the US. It has to change its traditional ways of pursuing joint projects before other nations will accept it as a partner. Its domination of planning and operational control, its annual funding wrangles, and its unilateral design changes in such joint ventures as the space station have earned the US a ``reputation for being a difficult and unreliable partner for big science undertakings,'' Brown observes.

Brown says the United States should strive to be second to none in its scientific enterprise. But when it comes to international cooperation, the country no longer can try to ``swagger it'' as a first among equals. It also has to reform its budget process - both in Congress and the White House - so that it can keep its international commitments.

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Gibbons notes that the need to appropriate money annually makes this difficult. Yet he cites instances where multiyear commitments have been made in the defense area - such as building an aircraft carrier over a five-year period. ``We're going to be working with Congress this year to ... find a way to do this multiyear commitment in these big [science] projects,'' he says.

For his part, Brown explains that science projects costing more than $50 million should be authorized before they receive any funding. That means being reviewed on their merits and approved for funding over a specified multiyear period. It could short-circuit the annual squabbling.

Brown notes that the SSC never was authorized in this manner. The project's congressional supporters merely obtained money for it each year until they lost their political clout.