Can you buy leadership?

If you talk to people trying to convince the government to give them more money, the answer is 'yes', even among scientists who know better. Since the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider, Americans have been shy about Big Physics - politicians don't trust the projections science makes on if projects can be completed at all, much less on time and on budget.  And no one has minded not having Big Physics locally except American physicists, who would rather large colliders be closer to home.

It's basically science nationalism. If you wonder that the American military is always fretting about leadership, you understand the nationalist thought process - we are happy to buy iPads from China because they are much cheaper yet when it comes to strategic resources, like food and military technology, we spend a lot for a domestic market.  I have argued that science is a strategic resource, like food and energy, and doesn't have to make money - and yet I also argued against having the LHC after America showed with the SSC that some in science were beginning to regard the field as something of a job works program rather than research in the public interest. Funding science is important. Funding Big Science, not so much.

So we didn't build the SSC and instead Europeans re-purposed space they had, which kept the cost and protests down considerably, and built the LHC - it was still way over budget and long delayed and it was not the SSC but it got built and there is no indication the SSC would still be at spec even today. Europe didn't do it alone.  Americans still spent over $500 million on the LHC and 1,200 physicists work there, so why would anyone in America say the Higgs boson finding was a European discovery and not a science one in the age of multi-national science? Old habits die hard.

Big Science lacks a great track record and yet science policy wonks are still culturally in a Cold War mentality of slapping the term "Manhattan Project for" in front of everything being evangelized, as if that is a positive. What was the last Big Science project completed here?  The Human Genome Project. But that wasn't a win for government-controlled science, really, it had a private sector competitor who threatened to beat the NIH to the punch, at 10% of the government cost. What current Big Science project has no private sector competition and is wildly over budget, far behind schedule and still has no technology roadmap for completion?  The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The public and politicians have earned the right to be skeptical.

Big Science get media attention but those projects starve smaller experiments when they go over budget and are 'too big to fail' like JWST is. No one misses the Space Shuttle, though we were told we would lose leadership in space without it. What generated a lot of excitement for less than the cost of one shuttle launch was the Curiosity Rover on Mars; hardly a big, expensive project.

Writing in the New York Times, Dennis Overbye bites into revisionist history and notes "After canceling the Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been the world’s most powerful physics machine, in 1993" - well, you can stop there. We have no evidence it was anything of the kind.  It was an outline for a machine that had no technology roadmap so it's hardly fair to say what it "would have been".  Leaving out that context makes it sound like anti-science Democrats in Congress, and especially in the White House, just wanted to kill a science experiment and use the money for constituents. In reality they were smart to do so, it had exceeded its total projected cost and was still just a hole in the ground. There was no way to know if it could even be completed, they were claiming they could build a machine with higher energy than the LHC and the ILC, and the ILC won't even begin construction one knows when. Dr. Lyn Evans says 'a few years'.  It was one of the few instances where the problems were so obvious even the politicians in Texas couldn't convince anyone to keep it going.

So American physics has collapsed without the SSC, right?  Well, no, America leads the world in science still. When Carl Weiman and Eric Cornell did their Nobel-prize work with the Bose-Einstein Condensate, they did it at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, not a giant collider. There is a lot more to physics than searching for fundamental particles. 

Overbye mentions the change at the Tevatron but doesn't note that the project isn't being boarded up and filled with cement, the NovA experiment is going to benefit from those protons now. It made no sense to delay new experiments to keep one alive from the 1980s out of a sense of nostalgia. 

Aside from concern about creating more projects 'too big to fail' - we have enough car companies and banks, thanks - we also face cultural issues to getting new Big Science projects underway. I think we all recognize that if a lot of other countries each foot 5-10% of the bill for a new experiment, America might put up the rest, and having educated people from all over the world move to America and fall in love with her is a wonderful thing, for us and them. But the plight of American astronomy has shown us what happens when activists and their lobbyists wield anti-science disinformation campaigns, which they clearly still do in 2013. America has wonderful locations for telescopes but it's easier to build big ones in other countries now, as we discovered with the Mt. Graham, where environmentalists insisted it would ruin a squirrel and the 'sky island' ecology of the place, whatever that means - in reality, telescopes bring educated, white-collar jobs and researchers from all over the world and they require keeping light pollution down. Those are all great things - except they are great for Chile now rather than the United States.

The Keystone XL project approval was also hijacked by activists despite science studies showing no risk - delaying it is delaying high-paying union jobs in North America, where we build the safest pipelines in the world, which means there will instead be more environmental damage in places that don't care, like the Mid-East, and higher costs for fuel at home. Even foreign policy is improved when we aren't reliant on overseas oil.  Where is the call to buy 'leadership' in oil energy production? It's basic economics that if you want companies or the government to subsidize future energy research, they have to make money to do so.  When the economy is bad, people don't care about the environment.

We were wrong to try and buy 'leadership' in solar panels away from China and it cost us all tens of billions of dollars in lost taxpayer money, money which is oddly being borrowed from China anyway. So if Japan wants to spend $20 billion on an ILC, we could certainly let them - and they may not even want our help in a meaningful way. America has observer status at the LHC for example, and CERN doesn't actually want anything more than that from the US. Why?  Our government. They don't want "the United States Government Accountability Office and others “crawling down their shorts”" as Dr. Jim Siegrist, associate director for high-energy physics at the Department of Energy, told Overbye for the New York Times piece.

Which means America may just have observer status, like it does with the LHC. And that's okay.  Joe Incandela, who led one of the two teams making the July Higgs boson discovery announcement, is American.  It made no difference at all that America was not a full member.

In the military, leadership is a title. "You salute the uniform, not the man", the saying goes.  In the corporate world, there is at least a pretense in belief that "leadership is action, not position."

In neither case is leadership something you have just because you spent the most money. Science can do well to remember that.