SCIENCE

The mystery of life

A research megaproject triggers a funding debate

HAL QUINN October 15 1990
SCIENCE

The mystery of life

A research megaproject triggers a funding debate

HAL QUINN October 15 1990

The mystery of life

SCIENCE

A research megaproject triggers a funding debate

Subatomic physics is a subject that befuddles the average mind but intrigues and attracts some of the planet's finest. As a scientific discipline, it is

precisely the opposite of space exploration. Rather than searching for the origins of life in the outer reaches of the universe, subatomic physics seeks to answer those questions by unravelling the mysteries of the atom. And around the world, the decision to fund such research rests with politicians. Before the end of the year, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his cabinet must decide whether Ottawa should contribute $236 million towards the cost of constructing a $708-million world-class facility to study subatomic particles at the University of British Columbia. Before the government decides, however, it must resolve a ferocious, five-year-old debate between advocates of the project, including the B.C. government and the physics departments at four major western Canadian universities, and its opponents, including two of Canada’s principal scientific research organizations, both of them based in Ottawa.

The federal government’s decision on the project—known as Triumf-KAON because of

the three original sponsoring universities and the subject matter involved—is further complicated by political and financial considerations. Making a contribution would require special funding at a time when the federal government is preoccupied with the country’s $360-billion national debt and annual deficits of close to $30 billion. Yet B.C. politicians and academics have argued that Ottawa managed last month to come up with $2.7 billion for the Hibernia oil project off the coast of Newfoundland. And the Tories must consider international opinion, because the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan agreed to contribute $236 million worth of equipment and supplies, equivalent to one-third of the cost of the project. But the G7 countries, who maintain a joint committee to co-ordinate major scientific research projects, declared that they would contribute only if Canada provided the rest of the money required to build the facility. Triumf-KAON’s supporters also argue that the project would produce scientific and medical spin-offs, as well as economic benefits worth almost $250 million annually within three years of completion. But federal Minister for Science William Winegard cautioned, “The

deficit will have to be taken into account, and where the project fits in terms of our national priorities.” According to its backers, the Triumf-KAON project would catapult Canada to the forefront of a multibillion-dollar, multinational scientific effort to understand the inner workings of the atom. Having established that all matter in the universe is composed of atoms, physicists have spent decades trying to understand their content and behavior. With the help of ever more sophisticated equipment, the study of subatomic particles has flourished over the past 10 years. Particle physicists have delved ever further into the structure of atoms and found that protons, which make up the nucleus, contain even smaller electrical partides known as quarks. Indeed, scientists now know that three pairs of quarks exist,

which have been dubbed up and down quarks, calm and strange quarks, and top and bottom quarks, based upon their behavior.

The proposed function of the Triumf-KAON project is to study the unusual properties of the “strange” quark by producing associated subatomic particles known as kaons. The project has been developed by UBC, Vancouver-based Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and the Edmonton-based University of Alberta. Construction would take six years and generate 17,000 person-years of work, according to project director Erich Vogt. The heart of the project would be a one-kilometre-long tube that forms a huge circle on an 80-acre site. The tube, which is made of ceramics, would be buried beneath the southern portion of the UBC campus at depths varying from a few inches to 60 feet.

With the use of electromagnetic energy, protons could be made to gravel within the tube at close to the speed of light, or nearly 186,000 miles per second, said Vogt. While the protons are travelling at top speed, they would collide with a copper wafer two-fifths of an inch thick. The collision would produce the subatomic particles known as kaons. Vogt describes a kaon as a bundle of energy that lasts about onebillionth of a second and carries the strange quark. He said that kaons are being produced in particle accelerators located elsewhere, but the UBC facility would be capable of generating 100 times as many kaons as other accelerators. Said Vogt: “The world will come here for that science.”

Proponents argue that if the Triumf-KAON project is approved and built, it will become part of a select group of facilities around the world where state-of-the-art particle research is being conducted or planned. The world’s leading particle physicists—including Canadians—are studying the properties of other

quarks at a new $1.2-billion particle collider in Geneva. A second is now being built near Hamburg in Germany. And the United States is currently building a $7-billion Superconducting Super Collider near Dallas that is scheduled to be completed by 1998. According to Vogt, the Triumf-KAON accelerator would complement research already under way in Geneva and the experiments and study planned for the Hamburg and the Texas facilities. Said Vogt: “KAON is a vital part in the system of tools which is now needed to answer the new questions.”

Advocates of the Triumf-KAON centre contend that it will produce a wide range of medical and scientific spin-offs. They support their position by pointing to previous particle research, which has already produced tangible benefits for the medical profession. Spin-offs have included the use of pions, another class of subatomic particles, to treat inoperable brain tumors. In cases where a tumor has developed deep in a patient’s brain, doctors are reluctant

to use conventional surgery because they would damage healthy tissue in trying to reach the tumor. Instead, doctors can now destroy the tumor by depositing pions, which are electrically charged particles, within the tumor. The pions, which break up in 26 billionths of a second, limit their damage to an area no larger than a cubic millimetre.

Particle research has also led to the development of Positron Emission Tomography, a method of scanning the brain in order to study the effects of a number of debili-

tating neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. Patients receive small amounts of a radioactive drug. The drug emits subatomic particles called positrons, which collide with other subatomic particles in the brain. The scanner is capable of detecting the minute amounts of energy created by the collisions and from that produces a map of brain activity. The procedure can be administered to conscious and alert patients.

Still, the Triumf-KAON project faces intense resistance within the Canadian scientific com-

munity. John Roth, chairman of the Big Science committee for the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology, said that his committee has already submitted a draft report on the project to Winegard. Roth, who is executive vice-president of Mississauga, Ont.-based Northern Telecom, told Maclean’s that the report advises that Canada should not build KAON. While acknowledging that KAON would play a useful role in particle research, Roth said

that the big discoveries will be made at the larger Geneva and Dallas centres. Said Roth: “The problem we have is that the KAON facility is just terribly expensive. And it comes at a time when Canada is bankrupt.” Roth points out that, to proceed with KAON, Canada would have to borrow money from the Germans and Japanese “to build something they are not building, but we’re paying interest on the money.” He estimated that the total construction and operating costs over the next decade could reach $1.5 billion. Roth also said that he

does not think that the economic benefits would come close to matching the costs of the project.

Along with Roth, numerous other Canadian scientists are concerned with both the $708million construction costs and the ongoing $90million annual operating costs. Their concerns are reflected in a December, 1986, report prepared by a special committee of the National Research Council (NRC) and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The committee of 21 eminent scientists and engineers, set up specifically to review the Triumf-KAON project, concluded, “Unless the current level of support for basic scientific research in Canada is significantly increased, projects the magnitude of KAON cannot proceed without major and widespread disruption of excellent ongoing research.” Both the NRC and NSERC adopted the committee report rejecting funding for the project, and since then the battle has become increasingly political. Admitted Vogt: “It is the nature of ‘Big Science’ proposals that they eventually become political. The pursuit of science is not driven primarily by the fact that Helmut Kohl or George Bush want to understand what happens at the heart of matter.”

Despite the disagreement over the merits of Triumf-KAON, the Canadian scientific community is united in the belief that the project can go ahead only if the federal government is prepared to commit so-called new money. Both sides agree that one scientific megaproject cannot consume the existing budgets of hundreds of smaller scientific research projects. But Triumf-KAON’s supporters maintain that Ottawa must fund what they call “Big Science” if Canada is to march into the next century in step with technologically developed nations. The federal government’s position on Triumf-KAON has been complicated further by the support of other governments. B.C.’s Social Credit administration last month announced that it would contribute $236 million, matching the proposed federal contribution and doubling its own previous financial commitment. The G7 contribution, in effect the remaining one-third of the construction cost, includes $100 million from the United States, its largest commitment ever to a foreign science project. And B.C. Minister of Regional and Economic Development Stanley Hagen said the province is now prepared to consider covering part of the annual operating costs.

According to Hagen, B.C.’s “new money” may come from a five-year, $420-million science and technology fund established in the past budget, the second consecutive balanced B.C. budget. Whether those funds will come from current or projected tax revenues or will be “found,” Hagen could not say for certain. But what is certain is that the federal budget is, anything but balanced. And when Winegard brings the Triumf-KAON proposal to cabinet before the end of the year, the search for the new funding to build the project may prove as daunting as the quest for the building blocks at the heart of matter.

HAL QUINN

in Vancouver