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Not All Big Science Is Bad Science


Washington. -- Down goes Star Wars, while the Space Station shrinks toward oblivion, and the super atom smasher in Texas faces formidable money problems.

Times are bad for these and other so-called mega-projects, America's unique invention for the advancement of science and technology in space and on earth. Along with their mammoth scale, the mega-projects share a common political trajectory of strong commitment at the outset, rising budgets in the billions, disillusionment and decline.

Once considered a virtue in high-tech endeavors, bigness itself has become a ground for suspicion whenever scientists or engineers aspire to grand creations.

But in the same way that overenthusiasm has lured politics into financing misbegotten high-tech ventures, disillusionment can chill worthy endeavors.

The founding ancestor of the mega-project style was the crash program during World War II to build the first atomic bombs, the Manhattan Project -- ever since the shorthand term for a vast mobilization of government resources focused on a single goal.

In fact, there's nothing wrong with the Manhattan Project approach if the goal is worthy and attainable and the costs are realistically estimated and manageable. Mishaps in mega-projects can be attributed to deviations from these criteria, while the success stories generally meet them. The Apollo moon landing is a shining example of a well-conceived mega-project efficiently carried out. Even before it started, engineers knew that it was doable, though it would be extremely difficult.

In contrast, Star Wars, on which $31 billion has been squandered since Ronald Reagan launched it a decade ago, was rooted in hallucinations of an infallible missile defense. No amount of expenditure or technological genius could attain that goal.

With Mr. Reagan's departure from office, Star Wars lost an irreplaceable political champion and went into a decline. Even if it lives on surreptitiously in the Pentagon, as some suspect it might, Star Wars will be a mere sliver of what it used to be.

The Space Station, now going through yet another redesign to hold down its galloping costs, is a doable project, but is burdened by a fatal defect: For the billions that it will cost -- no one is sure how many -- the scientific and technical returns are likely to be paltry.

Many of the researchers who were expected to flock to the Space Station say that unmanned launchers can provide far less expensive ways to meet their needs in space. They argue that lower costs will enable them to carry out more experiments.

Proponents of the Space Station have yet to offer a good reason for building it. Instead, they insist that once it's up there, uses will be found -- a formulation that continues to lose friends on Capitol Hill.

The Superconducting Super Collider was sold to Congress on the basis of assurances that other countries would share the construction costs of the 54-miles-around atom smasher, now estimated at over $10 billion.

The assurance, however, was made before other nations were consulted. When asked for help, they declined, pointing out that they had their own scientific needs to attend to and that it was presumptuous of the United States to plan and start building the collider in the expectation that they would chip in. The mega-mistake in this case, an unrealistic financial plan, has put the big project in peril, with completion by no means assured.

Would AIDS research benefit from a Manhattan Project approach? Probably not, since the AIDS virus remains so poorly understood that there is no possibility at present of devising a means to counter it. What's needed in this case is basic scientific knowledge, and that's best acquired by individual scientists and small-scale research groups, rather than through a major mobilization and orchestration of effort.

Too much direction too early in the process of discovery can stifle scientific creativity. Fortunately, despite political pressures, government policy remains attached to the small-science approach for AIDS research.

With mega-projects in poor repute these days, the big-science mobilization tends to be shunned even when it might be useful. An example is the electric car. A most desirable goal, it is receiving a fair amount of attention in government and industrial laboratories, but nothing worthy of the Manhattan Project label. An upgrade to an all-out effort is warranted on technical grounds as well as for the benefits that would flow from success.

Mega-projects have indeed acquired a bad name. But, with careful choosing, they're the best way to go.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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