The successful campaign by House deficit hawks to kill the $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider, now a $1 billion hole in the ground beneath the Texas prairie, shows that public demand for curbs on questionable federal spending is finally being heard where it counts.
To achieve victory, foes of this Big Science project had to buck the Clinton administration, the House Democratic leadership, a stacked deck of parliamentary rules and lobbyists who thought dribbling contracts around the country would, as usual, create a winning coalition on Capitol Hill.
Some weeks ago, White House science adviser John Gibbons presciently remarked that "when you get into big bucks, curiosity-driven research has to meet additional criteria" such as serving other national goals. "That's the issue," he said, "with the SSC and the space station."
And on this issue, the Super Collider just could not pass muster. The idea of building a 54-mile underground oval in which powerful magnets would send streams of protons crashing against one another at almost the speed of light was very much "curiosity-driven research." Physicists were hoping to unlock secrets of the origin of matter. But legislators desperate to show they could do more than talk about cutting federal deficits did not see a sufficient economic payoff in the SSC, even though it is one-fifth completed and it will take $1 billion to close it down. That they accomplished this does not mitigate the pain of citizens and localities crossed up by vacillating government policy.
While the knowledge the SSC promises is desirable in the abstract, government is obligated to set strategic priorities in spending of taxpayer money. What may save the $19 billion Space Station Freedom is its higher visibility and its national security/foreign policy implications. Its survival is still in question now that the SSC has been rebuffed.
Although President Clinton gave his support to these two inherited Big Science projects, his creation of a National Council on Science and Technology reflects a desire to inject more rationality into the federal government's annual $76 billion research and development budget. But until he and Vice President Al Gore can actually show they are "reinventing government" in the science sector, their record will be suspect.