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The Hard Realities of International Science

By Irving Lerch, APS Director of International Scientific Affairs

The U.S. physics community faces some alarming questions with discordant international overtones: What will be the consequences to high-energy physics if the U.S. refuses to support the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN? What will happen to fusion research if ITER self-destructs? What will physicists do if there is no domestic or international development of next-generation intense synchrotron and neutron sources? What can we do to promote dialog among nations concerning the implementation and management of major new collaborative programs? And finally, what role will physicists play in the Megascience Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)?

Some questions, like the first three, wrench our vitals. The last seems benign, almost petty. But rephrasing the question makes the issue more immediate: How will physicists affect the debate among the industrialized nations about where, when and who will benefit from the next big science project? The implication is that we may find ourselves excluded from the decision-making process which will mold the complexion and fate of physics for a generation or more.

However, despite all the lip-service to the contrary, there is little evidence that the international community is moving toward ever-increasing cooperation in big science research. The credibility of the U.S. as a partner in international ventures is open to question as Congress and the Administration inflate and collapse the bubble of support for collaborative programs.

The instruments at our disposal for international participation are few. In the post-war period, foreign regional projects like CERN were viewed as peripheral chips in our national mosaic dominated by Fermilab and SLAC. United Nations programs such as the International Atomic Energy Agency were engineered by the member states as mere extensions of their foreign policies. The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics moved along at its leisurely pace, badly underfunded and only occasionally seeking larger relevance through the organization of international committees on specific subjects.

By far the largest programs for support of U.S. scientists in international collaborations came from the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and other government funding agencies. But many of these programs are imploding and the very survival of some agencies is at risk.

With this in mind, it's important to focus on the last two questions above in the context of current problems. We are familiar with the recommendation of the Drell Panel which requested funds for U.S. participation in the LHC. What will happen if funding is not provided? Is it at all certain that the long-standing policy of open access to the best qualified U.S. physicists will not be abrogated?

Not necessarily. At a meeting of the UNESCO Physics Action Council at CERN this past June, Director-General Chris Llewellyn-Smith asserted that the CERN council will probably feel compelled to impose at least some restrictions on non-member participation in the absence of contributions to operations.

Is this ingratitude for the open policy that hosted thousands of European scholars at U.S. institutions over the past two generations? More likely, this reflects the hard realities of an organization seeking to implement a difficult program while laboring under declining financial resources. It also illustrates the fear of some CERN members that U.S. participation, now fourth behind England, Germany and France in the existing experimental program, will shoulder out the smaller dues-paying members. This is not an idle fear. More than 500 U.S. physicists are now involved in the preparation of LHC experiments, whereas there are fewer than 270 physicists for Italy, Germany, France and the U.K., respectively.

What about the OECD Megascience Forum - the one-time vision of APS Vice-President D. Allen Bromley during his tenure as President Bush's science advisor? Both the U.S. Liaison Committee to IUPAP and the UNESCO Physics Action Council have expressed their apprehension that the physics community will be excluded from the process or relegated a secondary role as expert "advisors." And there are many in the scientific community who have yet to face the reality that large science programs must reflect the individual interests of nations and the collective interests of regions. Scientists cannot decide where a facility is best sited, the size of each participant's contribution, and how such facilities will be funded.

Whether we like it or not, OECD represents the economic and political interests of its members, not the intellectual interests of scientists. Thus, if the physics community is to play a substantive role, it must enlarge its horizon and call upon its leaders to face the broader facts of life. Physicists are no longer able to conjure the ghosts of their cold war status. We are now forced to demonstrate anew what physics contributes to international amity, prosperity and peace.

These are the hidden beasts that stalk us in the international wilds. While the industrialized nations talk about the need to collaborate, they are increasingly unwilling as individuals to make the necessary investments. What is needed is a new international regime with sufficient access to funds and the best scientific intelligence, enabling us to act wisely and decisively to maintain the vigor and vision of science.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin