CRS Analyzes Federal Big Science Projects

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Publication date: 
18 November 1994
Number: 
160

In response to a request by the House science committee, the
Congressional Research Service (CRS) analyzed 30 federally-funded
scientific mega-projects begun within the past 15 years.  The
40-page report, entitled "Big Science and Technology Projects:
Analysis of 30 Selected U.S. Government Projects," and released on
August 24, examines 16 DOE, 11 NASA, and 3 NSF projects, some
on-going, some completed, and some cancelled.  It looks at their
cost and schedule histories, their record of authorizations (if
any) and appropriations, and provides a brief summary of their
current status and support. 

The projects ending in termination all experienced significant
increases in their estimated cost.  CRS notes that many (although
not all) of the cost and schedule overruns were caused by
congressional appropriations of less than the full funding needed
to keep the program on track.  The report finds that "of those
projects selected, significant cost increases are associated more
frequently with the terminated projects than with the on-going
projects.  Of the terminated projects, cost increases ranged from
a low of about 1.5 times the originally estimated cost to highs of
5.2 times and 8 times.  Of the on-going projects, on the other
hand, estimated cost increases thus far range from none in several
cases to a high of 3.4 times."

The report concludes that "significant technical, cost, political,
foreign policy, and other events following an initial authorization
and/or appropriation may overshadow initial congressional support."
It recommends that Congress consider requiring "authorizing
legislation for big science and technology projects...  However,"
it warns, "it would seem inevitable that some big science and
technology projects, even with initial congressional and
administrative support, will succumb to unforeseen problems and
events."

Below is the CRS summary of LIGO.  In parentheses are the expected
date of completion, the initial estimated cost, and the current
estimated cost.  Summaries of selected DOE and NASA projects will
be provided in FYIs #161 and #162.

LASER INTERFEROMETER GRAVITATIONAL WAVE OBSERVATORY (FY1999; $340
m federal share; $356 m federal share):  "There has been debate in
Congress and the scientific community from the beginning concerning
the cost of the project....  There has been added congressional
concern in that LIGO lacks international collaboration or
participation.  More central to the debate is the criticism of its
having been scaled up from one 40-meter prototype in February 1992
to the current design of two 4-kilometer facilities.  Many in the
scientific community contend that the more prudent approach would
be to pursue aggressive technology development, beginning with the
construction of a 200-meter telescope.  In its current design,
there are questions as to whether or not the objectives of the
project are achievable.  LIGO is considered to be a high risk
experiment, even by many in the physics community."

The report can be obtained through the offices of your Members of
Congress.  The Capitol Switchboard number is 202-224-3121.

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