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Should we save science?

David Gregory | 04:55 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

Me deep in conversation at JParc

So is science special? Should it face cuts like everything else? Or does it have some sort of special status. We've spent the past few days in Japan looking at the culmination of a decade of work for the University of Warwick. A team there has spent 10 years designing and building a neutrino detector for a huge experiment designed to reveal some fundamental truths about the universe. The Warwick team are part of a collaboration between several UK institutions and many more internationally.

But there's no instant direct benefit to all this research. And compare cuts to this budget to protecting the winter fuel allowance and who wouldn't pick protecting the frail and elderly over finding some esoteric fact about why our reality is like it is?

And yet. Big science has been coping with cuts for quite some time now and not just in the UK. The University of Warwick detector is based here at JParc in Tokai about two hours north of Tokyo. At the moment the team from Warwick are installing their detectors because the entire lab is currently switched off. Partly this is to upgrade some parts of the machine that supplies the neturinos the Warwick experiment needs.

But it's also because turning off the machine saves on the Japanese electricity bill which has currently gone over budget.

And all around here you find examples of designs reused from places like CERN. In fact one of the massive magnets used by the team from Warwick was actually rescued from a car park at CERN. It was covered in snow at the time. This will be the third experiment to use this massive piece of technology.

So despite "big science" having a costly reputation, people are aware there just isn't the cash to go around. Once researcher told me this experiment was budgeted at £20m and in the end they got more like £15m. Which is less than some footballers are worth.

And it's important to say cuts to science budgets aren't new and indeed they aren't something unique to the Coallition Government either.

But Science Minister David Willetts told me last week at the British Science Festival in Birmingham that when he went to CERN he was "very concerned" about the budget overruns there. Now we learn CERN is to shut down completely in 2012 to save money.

The scientists I spoke to here argue they really have cut and chopped at these big projects as much as they can. What will get trimmed next will be people. You save money by letting go of experienced staff. And you just don't employ young scientists in the first place. It's a loss of experience and opportunity.

Because for every great science experiment, answering a question of no apparent relation to the real world, there's also a team of motivated, highly trained people who could go on eventually to improve all our lives in all sorts of ways.

So what do you think? Would you protect the science budget?


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