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Particle-Physics Partner

MEMBER nations of the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) at Geneva want to build the world's most powerful particle accelerator. They would like the United States to join the project. It should.

The CERN machine would smash protons together with little more than one-third of the energy that the canceled US Superconducting Super Collider would have achieved. Yet it still would operate at energy levels that could probe some of the deepest unanswered questions in physics, including the origin of material mass and the underlying nature of the basic material forces.

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CERN's project also would represent a significant step toward making this important research fully international. Physicists agree that the next research stage beyond CERN's machine has to be done at a global center. Its megacost will only be justified by spreading it over many countries. This is crucial. The scientific value of the super collider was never in doubt. It was the roughly $11 billion price tag that brought it down. Despite its 19 member nations, CERN is essentially a regional entity. And by proving that it can be a stable partner with CERN, the US could overcome its reputation for being unable to keep international commitments. As it is, other nations are uneasy about working with Uncle Sam.

Ranking members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology emphasized this point when they recently introduced legislation to authorize high-energy physics funding.

The bill's provisions reflect recommendations made by the Department of Energy's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. The bill directs the Energy Department to negotiate US participation in the CERN project. It adds $50 million a year to the department's high-energy physics authorization for the next three years. That would cover the cost of joining the CERN program while keeping the rest of the US high-energy research effort viable.

CERN's machine would likely cost less than a quarter of the super collider's price. The US would have to put up several hundred million dollars. That's less than the cost of phasing out the super collider project. It's a reasonable investment to keep American physicists at the forefront of this research.

Congress should pass its science committee's authorization bill and follow through with the necessary appropriations.