Thursday, December 29, 2005

Politics: the ultimate multi-level system

The point of this posting is to illustrate how multi-level phenomena occur everywhere. In this case, the construction of a big-science project is subject to political and economic pressures having nothing to do with science.

From Science Magazine.
After 18 months of often bitter wrangling, the $12 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has a home at last. …

The basic concept behind ITER--using superconducting electromagnets to hold a plasma of hydrogen isotopes at a temperature and pressure high enough to achieve nuclear fusion--was born in the 1980s. But the design effort, split among centers in Europe, Japan, and the United States, didn't always go smoothly. In the late 1990s, after the engineering design was complete, governments balked at the price and asked the designers to cut the construction cost by half. The United States withdrew from the project in 1999, only to rejoin in 2003. By late 2003, only one hurdle remained: choosing the site. Government ministers from the by-then six members--China, the European Union (E.U.), Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States--gathered in Washington, D.C., for a gala signing ceremony. But when the time came to vote, they split down the middle.

Europeans suspected that the United States refused to support the French site to punish France for opposing the war in Iraq, while other whispers suggested that the United States had backed the Japanese site in exchange for Japan's support for the war. In the end, Japan and the E.U. hammered out a deal between themselves. In June this year, after months of delicate diplomacy, Japan withdrew Rokkasho in exchange for a bigger share of construction contracts and a hefty European contribution to a fusion research facility in Japan. [Emphasis added.]

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