From elite Prometheanism to free research

“Our time and energy are being sapped by bureaucrats and politicians. The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students.”
– Dr. Roy Schwitters, Head of the Superconducting Supercollider Project, in 1993.

“The open science movement is gaining momentum…But the Neuro is bringing open science to a new level by making a commitment to share everything from brain imaging to tissue samples to the data associated with its experiments.”
– McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, McGill News, Winter 2016/17.

The early 1990s may now be recalled mainly for large political developments. In Canada, they were the climactic years of a decade of constitutional conflict, ending in negative outcomes of two referendums; in the U.S., the victory of Bill Clinton. But two other events would cast long shadows over the quarter century that followed. One was the large popular vote won in the 1992 presidential election by the unconventional third-party candidate, Ross Perot, a major factor in denying George H. W. Bush a second term. It was an early portent of the growing current of cultural and economic nationalism that has now culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, with signs of a similar direction arriving in Europe. The other, less-recalled but highly significant in its own way, was the 1993 cancellation by the U.S. Congress of the funding necessary to complete the building of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project in Waxahachie, Texas.

The SSC was spearheaded by the Harvard physicist Roy Schwitters, co-winner of a 1976 Nobel Prize, experienced both in past large projects and lobbying in Washington. His 1,900 scientists and construction workers were building the SSC to learn more about the fundamental properties of matter, with what would have been the largest and most expensive scientific apparatus ever built. Everything about it was gargantuan. It required an elliptical tunnel 150 feet underground, 54 miles in circumference, and fitting together more than 10,000 large superconducting magnets, cooled to less than -200 degrees C by a river of liquified helium. Completion would have taken until at least 1999, at a cost of above $8 billion. The scientists had been working around the clock, almost as driven by deep conviction as the atomic physicists of the Manhattan Project. They hoped for world-changing discoveries, which might have made Schwitters as famous as Robert Oppenheimer. Instead, like Canada’s Avro Arrow, the SSC ended in heroic failure. More, it became the symbol of a worldwide retreat from decades of unbounded “Prometheanism” in natural science, changing the understanding of science in general.

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