When physicists’ views collide
2016-09-23, Chen Xin

Editor’s note: Chen-Ning Yang, a Chinese-American physicist and Nobel laureate, recently advised China not to build a supercollider, suggesting that the huge investment required for such a project could be better spent on social programs and other research. Two physicists, Wang Yifang and Chen Xin, here give their responses.

Progress will be worth the investment

Professor Chen-Ning Yang’s first argument in opposing the supercollider is the high cost. He cited the United States’ superconducting supercollider, which was initially budgeted at $3 billion in 1989 but abandoned three years later due to rapidly rising costs. Yang said China should not repeat the mistake made by the US.

Yet the US supercollider failed because of multiple reasons, among them being a US federal government budget deficit, political struggles between the Democratic and Republican parties, and competition between Texas and other states.

This would not be the case in China. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics has built a number of large-scale scientific facilities, including Beijing’s electron positron colliders. All costs were well controlled. There is no reason to expect China’s supercollider will exceed its budget.

Yang also said the investment in such a huge project would mean less funding for programs to improve people’s livelihoods and social welfare. Of course, China needs to fund programs to improve social welfare, but it also has to invest in scientific research to facilitate technological breakthroughs.

Furthermore, progress in high-energy physics will actually help to improve people’s livelihoods. Today, hospitals use MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices to diagnose diseases, we have touch screens on our smartphones and we have the Web for sharing information. Without pursuing research in high-energy physics for the past 70 years, and the technology innovations associated with it, all these would have been impossible, or at least significantly delayed.

For China, a supercollider will allow its scientists to keep abreast of the latest developments in physics, enabling the country to become a global research center. That is irreplaceable to its development in the long run.

The budget for a supercollider will not take funds from other research programs. Basic research accounts for only 5 percent of research and development funding in China.

The Chinese leadership has vowed to increase investment in basic research, with funds increasing by 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) a year. By comparison, the planned supercollider would require 3 billion yuan a year between 2022 and 2032 for its first stage. Therefore, it will not squeeze funds for basic research.

Yang was also pessimistic about building Chinese particle accelerators in the 1970s, yet the returns from the program were well worth the investment: The science resulting from Beijing’s electron positron colliders and the expertise acquired through experimental programs were vital to the successful building of the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment, a multinational collaboration in Hong Kong, while the synchrotron radiation facilities and neutron spallation sources constructed to serve the broader scientific community are also examples of good investment returns.

We should listen more to young scientists on the front line, who will carry China’s science programs to the next level. We believe a supercollider in China will help in a big way.


Wang Yifang is director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Public discussion on program welcome

The fact that Chen-Ning Yang used the mass media rather than a professional journal to disseminate his ideas is welcome, as the issue should be discussed not only by physicists, but also by taxpayers, because it is their money that will fund the supercollider program. 

Also, this will allow scientists to share their views with the public, which rarely happens.

Physicists believe supercolliders are necessary for the advancement of physics, but to build one, a country needs to have enough money, thoroughly discuss the issue, and cooperate with other countries in technology. China meets all these requirements.

There are fears the supercollider could take away a huge percentage of China’s budget for basic research. But the cost — 3 billion yuan a year between 2022 and 2032 — is not high considering the total research budget. In addition, a supercollider will help China catch up with the advanced world in science.

More importantly, particle physics advances on the basis of repeated experiments. Only when China has a supercollider to conduct experiments will its scientists be able to improve their research. Taxpayers should realize that the investment in a supercollider will yield promising returns because it will help upgrade technologies as a whole.

Chen Xin is an associate professor of physics at Tsinghua University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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