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Thrifty Atom-Busting

WHEN Congress killed the $11 billion supercollider particle accelerator, it ended a worthwhile research project no individual country could afford. Now the US has an opportunity to get back into the game at a reasonable cost.

Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who heads the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) at Geneva, came to Washington recently with an open invitation to join CERN's new accelerator program. His asking price is $300 million toward the cost of the machine plus $100 million to help pay for instrumentation. That's a bargain, considering the scientific value of the enterprise and the fact that other countries will pay the lion's share.

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CERN's 19 member nations have already agreed to put up $2 billion for the new accelerator. They would like to get an additional $500 million from other countries. This would shave five years off the machine's estimated construction time, bringing it on line by around 2003. If the United States can contribute $400 million toward this end, CERN hopes nations such as Canada, Japan, and even Russia can come up with the rest.

This is a program that even critics of the defunct supercollider have said they love. It would advance our understanding of matter at its fundamental level. At the beginning of this century, scientists knew nothing of the subatomic world. Today, knowledge of matter at that level underpins modern physics, biology, and chemistry. It is crucial to many advanced technologies, including that of the computer on which this editorial was written.

However, this basic knowledge is incomplete. It can't, for example, explain why matter has mass. This was the main question the supercollider would have tackled. Although it will be less powerful, CERN's new machine will also be able to seek the answer.

The supercollider would have developed basic knowledge that benefited the entire world. But critics rightly noted that, when the cost of such knowledge runs to billions of dollars, the research should be supported internationally.

Officials from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which fund basic physics, have said they would like to pursue Dr. Smith's invitation. They told him to come back in the fall when the fiscal 1996 budget will have been enacted.

This is an opportunity to do ''big science'' the way cost-conscious budget planners say it should be done.

Congress and the administration should see to it that the money is there.