THE NORMALLY brown prairie of Ellis County, Tex., is peaceful and green this fall following record rainfalls. One day soon, the bucolic tranquility will be interrupted by an army of heavy construction equipment as the largest public-works project in history gets underway -- a 53-mile circular tunnel, roughly the circumference of the Capital Beltway, fitted with 10,000 powerful superconducting magnets, each about 100 feet long. Like a double strand of beads on a necklace, the magnets form two rings. They will steer two beams of protons in opposite directions as they are accelerated to almost the speed of light -- and then made to collide head-on.

The "superconducting supercollider" (SSC) will take 10 years to build and it will cost about $10 billion. Billions more will be spent operating it. Sixty of the world's most talented accelerator scientists are already in Texas and hundreds more around the country are laboring over the planning and design of the SSC. The goal is as audacious as the vast scale of the undertaking; it is nothing less than the discovery of the origin of all matter.

At the instant of creation, energy congealed into mass. Time has transformed that primordial matter into the substance of today's universe. Scientists at the gigantic accelerator beneath the Texas prairie will attempt to recreate the enormous energies that existed when the universe began and thereby create in the laboratory elementary particles that have been extinct for 13 billion years. This is "big science" at its biggest.

Meanwhile, in a cramped laboratory in the Physics Building at the University of Maryland, a graduate student using a "scanning tunneling microscope" (STM) views the intricate pattern of atoms on the surface of a silicon crystal. The incredible images of the STM, showing each individual atom on the crystal surface, would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet the STM at Maryland was designed and built largely by graduate students, along with a low-energy electron-diffraction system and other tools of the surface-physics trade. The STM instrument itself is not much larger than a deck of cards. Together with its associated spectrometers, supporting vacuum equipment, electronics and computer, it fits into a laboratory the size of a small bedroom. It is being used at Maryland to understand the stability of semiconductor surfaces at the atomic level.

The work is closely supervised by Ellen Williams, one of the most promising young experimental physicists in the country, who has already been recognized with an American Physical Society prize for her original contributions to the study of crystal surfaces. She manages a group of a half dozen graduate students, plus a post-doctoral researcher who provides theoretical analysis. Their work is concerned not with the origins of atoms, but with how atoms interact. The work is acknowledged by scientists around the world to be unique and important research, contributing to an understanding of crystal surfaces that could lead one day to electronic devices a thousand times smaller than the microcircuits of today.

Like hundreds of other "individual investigators," however, Williams's financial support, which comes mostly from the National Science Foundation (NSF), has declined in recent years, while costs have steadily risen. Unless she can find additional support, she will have to let the post-doctoral theoretician go -- a severe blow to the program. Much of her time is already spent writing proposals to funding agencies in a never-ending struggle to scrape together sufficient resources to keep the program alive. Her plight is typical of university scientists who work alone or in small groups. These are the practitioners of "small science." Two Cultures of Science As the nation's budget problems intensify, the competition for research funds has aggravated resentment between the dissimilar cultures of big and little science. The high-energy physicists who hope to participate in supercollider research are bewildered that their colleagues in other fields of physics do not share their excitement at the prospect of discovering the very "roots of the tree of knowledge," as a promotional brochure gushed.

Progress in high-energy physics is constrained by the energy to which sub-atomic particles can be accelerated; the energy must continue to rise or the field will stagnate. With each increase in energy, however, the size and cost of accelerators increase. As accelerator energies approach the energy of the big bang, the search for primordial matter will begin to narrow -- the universe was simpler in the beginning. The principal quarry of the SSC is the hypothesized "Higgs boson," a particle, it is believed, that became extinct a fraction of a second after the universe was created. To be assured of finding the Higgs, the SSC will reach energies 20 times higher than any previous accelerator. Its cost must rise even more. How much Americans are willing to pay for progress in fundamental science is being tested, and high-energy physicists react nervously to every new crisis in the federal budget.

Each piece of this enormously complex machine will be assigned to a team of scientists. Thousands of them will labor in relative obscurity. Their rewards are those of the crew of the Santa Maria; they are part of the greatest voyage of discovery of our time. It seems unthinkable that humankind would stop now with the goal almost in hand.

But in the small-science laboratories, researchers are offended that their high-energy colleagues would propose a project so huge that it must inevitably suck resources away from other fields. In their view, the unearthly energies of the supercollider only ensure that it will have little relevance to the problems of the world. It is small science, they point out, that addresses problems on the scale of human experience and fuels the engine of progress. From growth hormones to high-temperature superconductivity to the chemical reactions that devour the ozone, the discoveries that are changing our lives are made largely by individual scientists or small groups -- and their plight is increasingly desperate.

The prospects that even the most promising young university scientists will be funded are declining. And it is not just the young whose prospects are bleak. Bitter stories of distinguished scientists, even Nobel laureates, whose federal support has been cut or terminated, are exchanged at every scientific gathering. Little wonder that so few of America's youth are willing to endure the rigors of an education in science.

In contrast to high-energy physics, the budget crunch in "condensed matter physics," which includes Williams's surface studies, is due less to rising research costs than to the blossoming of new science. Indeed, despite its amazing ability to resolve individual atoms, the scanning tunneling microscope is far cheaper than the huge electron microscopes that were the most powerful microscopes a decade ago. But whole fields of research did not even exist in 1980 -- such as high-temperature superconductivity, which today involves the efforts of thousands of individual scientists around the world. They compete with surface physicists and other condensed-matter scientists for funding that has shown little growth beyond inflation.

Other branches of science are experiencing similar strains between "big" and "little" science. Biomedical researchers, for example, are divided over plans to map the complete human genome. It would be a spectacular achievement for the newly developed techniques of gene sequencing, but it will cost billions of dollars and divert thousands of scientists from other productive lines of research. The fundamental goal of understanding the human genome and its products, critics argue, could be reached more quickly by shifting funds from the human genome project to projects initiated by individual scientists. They believe it is irresponsible to devote so much to a single project, however worthy, when two out of three research proposals in the biomedical field are being rejected for lack of funds.

As in condensed-matter physics, the funding problems of individual researchers in the biomedical field are partly a product of success. New discoveries -- as well as new diseases -- have created whole new fields of research that compete for limited research dollars. AIDS research alone now commands an annual budget of $800 million. Individual university researchers who choose not to work on AIDS or the human genome project may find their chances of being funded steadily shrinking.

Space scientists fear that the manned space station, whose cost estimate has swollen to a staggering $38 billion, will divert funds from space science in the '90s, as the space shuttle program did a decade earlier. Indeed, scientists bristle at listing the space station among "big science" programs. It's not really a science program at all, they insist; it's an orbiting pork barrel, whose only purpose is to prop up the aerospace industry. Now President Bush has called for an expedition to the moon and to Mars, at a cost estimated to exceed a half-trillion dollars! Yet virtually all scientists contend there is little to be learned scientifically from sending humans to Mars that could not be learned faster and more reliably with robotic probes -- and at much lower cost. Setting Priorities Both Congress and the Bush administration have a strong preference for conspicuous new initiatives, such as supercolliders and space shuttles, that serve as visible symbols of the nation's commitment to science and technology. Such symbols are not without practical benefits. Our failure to interest our own children in science careers compels the United States to rely on importing foreign scientists and engineers to help run our technological enterprise. Foreign scientists are attracted here because the United States is seen as the center of the universe for science. Our vitality as a nation depends on remaining the center.

It would be tragic, however, if we were to retain the symbols of American leadership in science and yet fail to support the small-science activities that keep us competitive. But that is precisely what we seem to be doing. Congress is inclined to believe that it has done well by small science if the budget of the NSF grows faster than the cost of living. But, to compete with Japan and Germany, we must learn to match our investment in small science to the increasing technological sophistication it generates -- as they have done.

The president's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, commented recently that individual researchers do not comprise a unified scientific constituency, as do the supporters of mega-science projects. "The time has come, I'm afraid, when these constituencies matter," he said. But in fact, it's not just the scientific constituency that matters. Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, supports the SSC in the expectation that the magnets will be built in his economically depressed state. When efforts were made to ease the financial burden by bringing in foreign partners, it was suggested that Japan might contribute some of the magnets. "Let Japan dig the ditch or string the wires or something," Johnston said. That, of course, would produce an outcry from the domestic construction industry. The concrete lobby calls the SSC "the big pour."

When Erich Bloch, former director of the NSF, stepped down at the end of his term, exhaustion from a futile six-year struggle to double the agency's budget revealed itself. "The awful truth," he said in an interview, "is that no scientific discipline will ever again be fully funded. We'd better realize this. Very clearly the system has outgrown the capability to support it."

He was wrong. If Congress and the administration were convinced of the need for significantly greater investment in science, they could find the necessary resources -- as they did for defense during the Cold War, as they are now doing for the crisis in the Middle East and as they will do for the S & L bailout. The alternative is to cede the future to other nations.

Robert Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, is director of the Washington office of public affairs for the American Physical Society.