The superconducting supercollider, a giant circular particle accelerator 54 miles in circumference under construction near Waxahatchie, Texas, is a classic example of the kind of "big science" project scientists hope will enable them to unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.
Whether the machine will live up to its promise is uncertain, however. Even if it does, it will have done so at the cost of other research with more immediate, practical applications. Meanwhile it will have added $8 billion to an already bloated federal budget deficit, and probably much more when all its costs are taken into account. Given the parlous state of the economy and so many other pressing needs, it's hard to justify the massive investment the device requires at this time.
The House of Representatives came to the same conclusion in June when it killed the project as unaffordable. But last week the Senate revived it by earmarking $550 million for the supercollider as part of a $22 billion energy and water projects appropriations bill. A House-Senate conference committee will try to sort this one out.
It would certainly be unusual for the conference committee to accede to the House's wishes and leave the supercollider out of compromise legislation, especially since the project has strong backing from President Bush. Yet that is exactly what Congress should do. Many of the senators who voted to fund the device only recently were urging their colleagues to adopt a balanced budget amendment. They can't have it both ways.
The administration has spread funding for the supercollider over a dozen or so states to ensure political support for the project. Supporters try to justify its great expense by saying it will create jobs for about 7,000 workers in Texas. But that's small comfort to elderly pensioners in Maryland who may see their medical benefits cut, or Baltimore children who no longer receive breakfast in school because the federal government is broke. It's not fair to slash entitlement programs in the name of deficit reduction while leaving big-ticket items like the supercollider virtually untouched.
We would like to see the supercollider built -- when the economy is stronger, when the federal deficit is under control and when more pressing needs for housing, education and health care have been addressed. Basic research that advances the frontiers of scientific knowledge is important to the future of this country. But it would be foolish to mortgage that future to an enormously costly project whose ultimate benefits may be marginal and whose cost would siphon funds away from more practical goals. On the scale of priorities, now is not the time to sink more money into the supercollider.