Taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for exoplanets and supercolliders
December 11, 2017
This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner on December 11, 2017
Discoveries beyond the solar system are exciting, so long as the price tag remains hidden from the public view.
NASA recently released a technical/cost analysis on their ambitious Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to little fanfare. WFRIST, designed to provide a high-resolution mapping of the universe and explore planets outside our solar system (exoplanets), had its cost originally pegged at $3.2 billion. Now, the cost is expected to be around $4 billion due to the planned “technological demonstration” of expensive coronagraph equipment. And $4 billion may be low considering the inevitable cost overruns with any government project.
Cyclotron technology, which was mainly funded by private foundations in the study nuclear physics, gave way to the Superconducting Super Collider project proposed thirty years ago. This gargantuan undertaking was out of reach for the private foundations that forked over the initial funding toward particle acceleration. But federal undertakings have issues of their own, and administrative bloat ballooned the price tag from $4.4 billion to $9 billion by 1993. Congress finally killed the project, and America lost its chance to become the global leader in particle physics.
But groundbreaking research didn’t die with Congress’s decision to axe the project. Particle physics research mainly shifted to Europe, with the main onus of discovery shifted to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). CERN’s affiliated laboratory has continued to expand over the years, and the addition of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 led to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.
While completing the American Supercollider may have accelerated the discovery and related breakthroughs, it makes little practical difference that European scientists spearheaded the discovery instead of American ones. Nuclear physicists around the world have access to CERN’s research, and Europe has no monopoly on any future innovations that come from these discoveries. American taxpayers, however, were saved from a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that would have inevitably required expensive additions to remain in operation.
Whether for planetary exploration or nuclear physics, American taxpayers needn’t always bear the cost. A history of exciting discoveries suggests that private foundations and foreign governments will gladly foot the bill for telescopes and colliders. American prestige is important, but Americans should not be bilked endlessly so that a few more native researchers receive a few more citations.