PARIS--Europe has put its grand high-energy physics project--the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)--on the fast track. On Friday, delegates from the 19 member countries of CERN, the European particle physics center near Geneva, voted unanimously to complete the $2 billion LHC by 2005--3 years earlier than recently projected. "This is superb news for particle physics," says CERN Director-General Christopher Llewellyn Smith.
The LHC will be the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. Scientists expect that its ability to smash together protons and antiprotons with a Promethean energy of 14 trillion electron volts will finally create the elusive Higgs boson and other exotic particles.
Prodding the LHC onto the fast track was an unexpected $35 million from Japan, its second contribution to the project. "We really hadn't hoped for this," says council member Jean Perez y Jorba of the University of Paris at Orsay. Other nonmember states are also offering welcome support. The council approved an agreement, due to be signed in April or May, under which the United States would provide $160 million for the LHC and $370 million for particle detectors to be used in the accelerator tunnel. CERN has also inked deals with Canada, Russia, India, and Israel. "Everyone in the world says this is the next major step we have to take," Llewellyn Smith says.
For CERN as a whole, however, "the funding situation still looks quite bleak," says Llewellyn Smith. At the meeting in Geneva, the delegates signed a resolution that reduces all members' contributions relative to a 1994 plan by 7.5% in 1997, 8.5% in 1998 to 2000, and 9.3% in 2001 and following years. Under those conditions, keeping the LHC on the fast track will require extraordinary dexterity. "We had already cut our programs to the bone in our long-term proposal put forward 3 years ago," says Llewellyn Smith.
The cuts will inevitably curtail CERN's current research program, a prospect that sparked intense debate at the council meeting, says council member Bernard de Wit of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Especially worrying is the possibility that the funding shortage will not allow the lab's current mainstay, the Large Electron-Positron collider (LEP), to be fully exploited before its planned shutdown at the end of 1999. "This would be a shame," says de Wit. But Llewelyn Smith says that LEP could get a reprieve. "If there is some major discovery, then we might have to consider changing the timetable of the LHC," he says. "If the physics case is strong enough, we will have to."