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By Michael Riordan
View down the SSC Main Ring tunnel at the base of the vertical shaft shown in Fig. 1, as seen in early 1993.
Big Science was high on the agenda at the Baltimore APS meeting, as several scientific collaborations around the world are beginning to contemplate the next gargantuan particle collider after the LHC. In an earlier session devoted to future planning, retired Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine, Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer, NASA chief scientist John Grunsfeld, and Nobel laureate John Mather of NASA Goddard offered their perspectives on pathways forward for US science. All agreed that large, multibillion-dollar projects must now be pursued internationally. “It would really be the exception,” said Grunsfeld, “to see some large, difficult science project that isn’t an international collaboration.”
So it was timely and appropriate that the Forum sponsored a session on the history of a failed Big Science project titled “Three Perspectives on the SSC,” at which about a hundred listeners showed up. The speakers were deliberately chosen to represent three different “communities of interest” in the project. Jim Decker, who served as Deputy Director of the DOE Office of Energy Research (OER) throughout the SSC’s existence, recounted the Department of Energy’s perspective. Next, Forum Chair-Elect Robert Crease of Stony Brook University spoke on behalf of deceased Presidential Science Adviser (to George W. Bush) John H. Marburger, III, who had been the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Universities Research Association (URA), the SSC management and operations contractor. Michael Riordan, lead author of the forthcoming SSC history, Tunnel Visions: The Rise and Fall of the Superconducting Super Collider (published in November by University of Chicago Press), closed out the session with an analysis of the many, interrelated causes of its demise.
Decker recalled that a “window of opportunity” opened in the early 1980s for the high-energy physics community during the administration of President Reagan. Encouraged by his Science Adviser George “Jay” Keyworth to “think big” and supported by OER Director Alvin Trivelpiece, the US High Energy Physics Advisory Panel recommended vigorous pursuit of a 20–40 TeV proton-proton collider. Reagan personally gave the official go-ahead in January 1987 with the recommendation, “Throw deep!” The ensuing site-selection process resulted in the selection of Waxahachie, Texas, south of Dallas rather than an Illinois site adjacent to Fermilab that most high-energy physicists favored. But that choice meant building up the physical and human infrastructure needed at a green-field site where established members of that community were reluctant to move. So URA and SSC Lab Director Roy Schwitters turned increasingly to firms and engineers from the military-industrial complex to fill this void. And when Schwitters came to the DOE in late 1989 with a more conservative site-specific SSC design that would add over $2 billion to the Congressionally approved cost of $5.9 billion, Energy Secretary James Watkins elected to impose a little military discipline on the construction process, sending two trusted lieutenants from the Nuclear Navy to Texas who had direct-line reporting to him — bypassing the OER’s established project-management oversight process. Whether this helped or hurt the SSC project has been the subject of much debate; most likely, both are true. But the widespread perception of the project in Washington, DC, that it was poorly managed and thus subject to continuing cost overruns, helped lead to its downfall. As Decker put it, the project had faced a “new realm of management challenges” in a “political environment an order of magnitude more complex” than that faced by previous, much smaller high-energy physics projects.
Management was a central theme of Crease’s presentation, titled “The Disappearing Fourth Wall: John Marburger, Science Policy, and the SSC.” It was based on a chapter in Marburger’s book Science Policy Up Close (Harvard, 2015), which Crease had edited for publication after John passed away in 2011. The metaphorical “fourth wall” separating builders of large scientific facilities and their patrons in DOE and Congress — and by extension the general public — was coming down in the 1980s, giving rise to what Marburger called “strategic management difficulties.” Rather than the trusting partnerships between the federal government and national labs characteristic of the AEC era, there was “a growing movement for management and accountability reform” in the DOE era that begin in 1977. URA was attempting to respond to such bureaucratic needs when it teamed with two military-industrial firms, Sverdrup and EG&G, hoping that they would provide the personnel, procurement and project-management systems that DOE was calling for but accelerator builders were unaccustomed to using in their work. But this did not happen as planned. The absence of a fully validated cost-and-schedule control system, for example, was frequently cited by oversight agencies and Congressional opponents as evidence for flawed SSC project management. According to Crease, this was one of the “risks of working in a fishbowl,” in which public scrutiny accompanied essentially all major lab decisions and some minor ones. “Neither the DOE nor URA were prepared for the impact of the disappearance of the fourth wall,” concluded Crease, “leading to missteps on the part of each that were an integral part of the SSC’s eventual fate.”
The huge scale of the SSC project, in both its size and cost, were also important factors, observed Riordan in his concluding lecture, “A Bridge Too Far?” An adjunct professor of physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Riordan had worked in URA’s Washington office in 1991 and witnessed first hand the political strife over the project. In a 2009 interview, he recalled, Marburger had observed that federal requirements for stringent management controls applied much more to large, highly visible multibillion-dollar projects like the SSC and Space Station. For projects costing less than a billion dollars, these requirements were less severe and scientists could more easily follow the more collegial management approaches to which they had become accustomed.
And internationalization of the SSC project was made more difficult by the founding rhetoric established by the Reagan Administration during the mid-1980s. Then sounding the mantra of “US competitiveness,” Reaganites such as Keyworth, Trivelpiece and Energy Secretary John Herrington pushed through the SSC as a nationalistic “American project” whose goal was to reestablish US leadership in high-energy physics. But the Office of Management and Budget required that DOE obtain one third of SSC funding from non-federal sources. This seminal rhetorical stance proved to be a fundamental stumbling block that was difficult to undo or ignore when members of the first Bush Administration began trying to internationalize the project and seek large foreign contributions — especially from Europe. After major foreign funding had failed to materialize by 1993, while annual SSC costs were increasing toward a billion dollars, a new, budget-cutting Congress pulled the plug and terminated the project.
All three speakers agreed that unresolved management problems were a big part of the reason for the project’s demise. And as Decker concluded, anyone planning a large scientific project today “must remember the lessons of the SSC.”