The cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider was an idiot thing to do for any number of reasons. First, it still would have been the most powerful accelerator on earth, with the most luminosity. We would have found the Higgs in 1996, instead of not quite yet in 2011. We rarely get measurable quantities like this in history, but it’s easy to quantify this. Cancellation of the SSC set back particle physics by more than 15 years. That’s half my scientific lifetime (and a scientific career change) gone. And now that LISA has been cancelled…
It would have cost less to finish it than we had spent on it to that point. The fallacy of sunk costs, I know, but it’s a powerful fallacy.
But the most important reason is that canceling the SSC caused the financial meltdown of 2008. As I remember, there were about 2000 physicists working on building the SSC: the magnets, the detectors, the computers, triggers, cryogenics, etc. Back in the 90s, the US matriculated about 200 Ph.Ds per year in high energy particle physics (HEP). When the SSC was canceled, that dumped a ten-year supply of particle physicists on the market all at once. HEP is known to create self-serving bastards (cf. Rubbia, Ting, et al.); even the lesser ones get indoctrinated in the culture by their colleagues and advisors.
All those bastards had to get a job somewhere. Even those of us bastards who were unlucky enough to graduate at that time and had nothing to do with the SSC were affected. I surmise that a large number of HEP physicists, who are smart, amoral, self-serving, and really good with computers and algorithms, fell into the waiting arms of Wall Street. Some number would have done that in any case, but there just weren’t enough jobs at CERN, Brookhaven, SLAC, and TRIUMPH to absorb everyone. In some sense, I was lucky, because I was just starting my postdoc career, so I could start in at a low level, but if you were an established scientist, with a family and a mortgage, taking another postdoc probably wasn’t an option for you. Wall Street was.
Would the financial markets have melted anyway? Probably. The development of derivatives, CDOs, regulatory capture, the buying and selling of politicians and power, the increasing plutarchy would have happened anyway. The demise of the SSC simply accelerated it. Another quantifiable aspect.
I have no data other than anecdotal to back up this opinion. That’s for a social scientist to discover. Go nuts, guys. (Call it the BWare postulation. There’s already BWare’s law.) If so, it’s yet another reason to blame a short-sighted Congress for causing the long, slow recession we’re in. Aside for blaming them for HEP moving overseas, and the US no longer being a leader in that field.
[update 22 Feb 12] I talked to some people who might know about such things. One told me that in 1994, his entire graduating class of Ph.D Harvard physicists went to Wall Street. Another made the point that the banksters would have ruined the economy anyway, and that scientists couldn’t be held responsible for their employers machinations. To me this seems like the argument that it was the politicians who are responsible for nuclear weapons, not the scientists who actually built them. Or the commander, not the soldier who pulls the trigger.
Without the scientist, the soldier, weapons aren’t built, triggers not pulled. Each does things for their own reasons, which may not be the same as those who write the checks, but in the end, responsibility lies with each of us. Apportion responsibility as you will. I can only be responsible for my own actions, by the moral system I choose to live by.