APS News

Session Analyzes Big Science Projects

Editor's Note: This story was written for APS News by Jordan Raddick.

Part of the unfinished SSC tunnel near Waxahachie, Texas.
Part of the unfinished SSC tunnel near Waxahachie, Texas.
The Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC) was to be the largest purely scientific project in the history of physics. The cost to build it was estimated at $11 billion. It would have probed energies as high as 40 TeV, and was designed to probe the Standard Model and hunt for the Higgs Particle. But on October 19, 1993, Congress terminated the SSC project. At this year's April meeting of the APS, four speakers discussed why.

The four-Herwig Schopper of CERN and the University of Hamburg, Michael Riordan of Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Cruz, Thomas Kirk of Brookhaven National Laboratory, and David Goldston, staff director of the House of Representatives Science Committee, were involved in very different ways in the histories of the SSC and other high-energy physics projects. Schopper was Director-General of CERN, Europe's high-energy research facility, and was involved in hearings of the US Congress and the G7 Economic Summit Working Group on High Energy Physics. Riordan, in collaboration with Lillian Hoddeson of the University of Illinois, is researching and writing a history of the SSC from its original conception in 1982 until its cancellation in 1993. Kirk worked as a member of the SSC central design group, headed the solenoidal detector design and construction effort during the SSC project and served as deputy SSC lab director for the SSC closeout. Goldston was legislative director to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), at the time a member of the House Science Committee (and now its Chair). Each gave a half-hour talk at the April meeting, then came together for a panel that answered questions from the audience.

The speakers identified several reasons for the SSC's downfall. First, the project's cost estimates increased from $5.9 billion at the start of construction in 1989 to nearly $11 billion in 1993. One main reason was that the aperture of the collider's magnets was increased after design proposals were submitted to Congress. Goldston said that this and later cost increases created the perception that the project was out of control. At a time when Congress was looking for ways to cut the federal budget deficit, a project perceived to be out of control was easier to kill. However, Kirk pointed out that other large-scale physics projects have doubled in cost during their designs, but were able to secure funding for completion. "This number, in my judgment, was not what killed the SSC," he said.

Second, the physics community did not reach consensus about whether the project would advance science enough to justify its cost. After the end of the Cold War, Congress no longer funded basic research aimed at competing with the Soviet Union; scientists needed to offer different justifications for their basic research. Goldston said that Congress was influenced by physicists who worried that the SSC would divert funds from other areas of physics. Schopper emphasized that for large projects to succeed, they must have broad support in the science community.

Third, as Kirk and to some extent Goldston pointed out, the SSC project was badly managed. Kirk said that key SSC managers did not have the technical expertise they needed- for example, the manager who oversaw the team that designed the collider's low-temperature superconducting magnets had no experience with magnets or cryogenics. He also noted that second-level managers turned over too often, destabilizing the project, and that communication between different parts of the project was inadequate. The SSC project had three leaders in Texas who rarely spoke to one another. SSC lab managers were directed by two top leaders who often gave uncorrelated direction. Kirk concluded that a mismatch between the cultures of the scientists, businessmen, and government officials who worked on the SSC hurt the project.

Fourth, the speakers said that the project suffered from a lack of international cooperation. Riordan said that other countries were dubious of the Reagan Administration's claims that the SSC would re-establish the United States as the world leader in high-energy physics. Schopper said that Europe was already committed to building two large colliders at the CERN site in Switzerland, so could not participate in the SSC project. Also, it was not clear to the Europeans and Japanese whether the SSC was an international or national project. In 1992, advisors to then-President Bush suggested that he approach Japanese leaders about participating in the project, but the President did not ask them. Goldston said that in 1987 the state of New York had proposed a site along the US-Canadian border, but the Department of Energy did not seriously consider the site. "This was a signal that the Department was not really interested in international participation in the SSC," he said.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette