Neutron research project faces critical Congress

by Colin Macilwain

The characteristic of Washington that Europeans perhaps find most peculiar is the inability of the executive branch of the government to get anything done without maintaining support from a stubbornly independent Congress.

If, for example, President Bill Clinton wants to fight a war, or construct a massive piece of scientific equipment in the home state of vice-president Al Gore, he must contend with Congressional scepticism, along with constant oversight from a group of obdurate gentlemen with whom he shares little but a taste for political gamesmanship.

In the UK, as well as most of Europe and Japan, the government invests a lot of prestige in expensive projects and finds it easier to continue with them than to withdraw. In the US, the opposite can be true: a project that is hard to start will often be harder to keep going.

The Advanced Neutron Spallation Source, a $1.4bn scientific facility being built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, could fall to this phenomenon. US physicists would use the facility to probe molecular and crystalline structures using the penetrative ability of neutrons.

To help generate the political support to get the neutron source built, the US Department of Energy involved four laboratories other than Oak Ridge. But this seems to have contributed to early management problems. The project manager was replaced in February and the new one says the construction project is running three to six months late.

James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chair of the Science Committee in the House of Representatives, says the project is in `turmoil’ and wants construction money frozen until the problems are fixed.

If Congress stalls funding, project costs will grow, since hundreds of engineers and scientists still have to be paid. Cost overruns will then lead to new attacks on the project in Congress. Such a vicious circle led to the 1993 abandonment of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas, when $2bn had been invested in it.

The neutron source is on stronger ground than the SSC. It has powerful bipartisan support, isn’t nearly as expensive, and would serve a wider community of scientists and engineers.

Sensenbrenner has limited power, and doesn’t want to kill the project. But his actions remind the Department of Energy that delays and cost overruns will not be tolerated. Powerful Congressional oversight can waste a lot of money on unfinished projects. But it may be a price worth paying for genuine accountability in the use of public funds.