Does big money equal better science?

CMS detector

The search for the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider at Cern has taken years of research and cost billions. It is a prime example of big money being spent on fundamental research into scientific principles, that critics say provides no answers to the problems the world faces today. In these austere times and with government money being used to fund the project, is funding better spent on solving practical problems?

Professor John Ellis
Professor John Ellis Mr Ellis believes blue sky research produces the best long-term benefits

I would never claim that bigger money equals better science. Some sciences require larger resources in order to make any progress at all, so I think big science is in general a different type of science.

History shows that real blue sky research of the type that is now called particle physics and astronomy has in the past produced, over the long term, tremendous results - not only scientifically but also practically for the human race.

And I would actually claim, and this is an old argument going back to [Michael] Faraday, that research that is directed towards immediate practical ends is in general not going to be truly revolutionary and the truly revolutionary advances often come from stuff which does not tick the immediate application box.

The research of Faraday, for example, led to the electrical revolution.

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He was supposed to be working at some point on better candles for lighthouses and he was once famously asked by [then chancellor, William] Gladstone, 'what use is your research?', and said something to the effect of, 'I don't know but surely someday you are going to tax it'.

I have the general impression that if you want to develop your economy, for that you need innovation, but you are not going to be able to innovate unless you have some R&D programme, first of all in engineering, but also in applied science.

But you are not going to be able to apply the science unless you understand it at a fundamental level, so I would say that there is an unbroken chain extending from fundamental science forward to economic development.

You would not expect research at Cern to produce any immediate economic benefits. Don't look five years down the road, don't look 10 years down the road, maybe 50 or 100 years down the road - that's where you should be looking.

That said, I think that doing big science has its own big challenges and the tools that particle physicists and also astronomers have developed to address those big challenges also turn out to have wider application, and by that I mean the World Wide Web.

Professor John Ellis

  • Professor of theoretical physics at King's College, London, and former head of theoretical physics at Cern

People often say that the World Wide Web could have been invented in a chemistry laboratory, but actually, no, the reason why it was invented at Cern is because Cern had a worldwide community of scientists who needed to work together, share data, share their analysis. This is not something that happens in a chemistry laboratory where everybody's in the same place and they are using the same three computers.

Sir David King
Sir David King Sir David wants a greater emphasis on solving the practical problems the world faces

There are a set of new challenges that we are faced with at the moment around resource shortages on the one hand, and around damage to the global commons on the other, and there is no question in my mind that there is insufficient research going into these areas.

If we look at resource shortages, we're looking at issues such as energy, water, minerals, and food. These are practical outcomes that are of direct consequence to the survivability of our civilisation going forward.

We have got a wonderful new set of challenges for science and technology, and in my view, we have to refocus a lot more public funds into developing exciting new innovations to take us through this.

My position is that research into areas such as astronomy and particle physics is very interesting and is important because often this type of work attracts bright young people into careers in science and technology.

So there is a very good argument for funding what is intellectually interesting and challenging but may not have practical outcomes from the research.

Expensive Experiments

Large Hadron Collider

In terms of particle physics in particular, we have got to the point where a single machine, a single instrument has become so expensive and it absorbs so much of brilliant people's time that we need to examine very carefully what is the opportunity cost of funding these areas against funding other areas.

In other words, it's a question of priority.

Theoretical physics colleagues of mine have been teaching about the Higgs boson for many, many decades and now we have an experimental confirmation and we have added a bit of detail to our knowledge of the Higgs boson as a result - if indeed it is the Higgs boson that is being looked at.

As far as I know, directly from the result of the research into particle physics at these very high energies there has been no useful outcome for society from that research directly.

Maybe indirectly - and everyone quotes the World Wide Web - but if we look at the actual discoveries of particle physics over that last 50 years, there are no direct outcomes.

There has been a lack of funding for finding answers to the practical problems we face because of two things - one is myopia. We tend to be very good at dealing with a problem that is sitting right on our desks at this point in time rather than worrying about the next 10-20 years.

But the second is perhaps more important - inertia. Human beings tend to have, for very good reason, inertia built into them from the education system.

Sir David King

  • Government's chief scientific adviser between 2000-2007

Secondly, we have infrastructure inertia. For example, every motor vehicle driving on the roads today is simply a linear extrapolation of the model T Ford, that has become more and more complex without actually qualitatively changing that manufacturing process.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @54. Trout
    I am glad u believe the FBI tells u the truth about everything :D
    Of course the State said the world was flat too & prosecuted poor Galileo for it. Such a lesson in hubris is lost on u.

    Ur standard Govt debunk link refers only to a "death ray". I don't know if he invented one.

    I do know that Tesla's family struggled to get any of his belongings back from the US Govt. Why was that

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The state should fund blue-sky research but we should note that pure science research has only lead to useful real world applications in counties that practice free enterprise.

    The silicon chip, internet, PC mobile phone etc were all developed into useful products in capitalist countries. Socialism on the other hand stifles innovation and creativity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Greater sums of cash certainly doesn't equal better science. It's a poorly phrased question if you ask me. CERN may have cost billions but so did the Olympics; which of these two will provide a better world, and not just a better Britain or London?

    A concern with today's science is that it's largely directed by corporate interests. A greater focus on practical problem solving would be OK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    " Bastiat
    Upon his death the FBI seized all of Tesla's remaining patents which it still suppresses to this day."

    Wow, a conspiracy theorist as well.

    I guess an official denial by the FBI simply acts to confirm the veracity of such nonsense to those who subscribe to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @46. Dan_Dover

    Yes I am romancing about the laissez-faire world of scientific advancement during the 17-19 century. Just a little passage of time we call the Industrial Revolution. I didn't see Govt doing much "inventing" then.

    Govt is a wet blanket on discovery & debate. Eg Today UN climate scientists attempting to ridicule other scientists opposed to human caused climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The vast majority of inventions and innovation arising from research have by far been the products of "fortuitous accident" and observation. Most research doesn't achieve it's aims, but the failures have had glorious rewards. Industry directed research is rarely "blue sky" and invariably looks at miniscule improvements to existing technology.New tech will not be discovered through this route

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    37 Trout Mask Replica - I'd prefer if more people with science degrees went into government; they might sympathise with science a bit more and it wouldn't be as much of a fight for every bit of funding.
    Then again, the current government's decisions would probably fry the logical mind of a scientist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    41. Bastiat

    Morse's telegraph would not have happened without the pure science of Faraday; Edison and Marconi's technologies would not have happened without the work of Maxwell and Hertz; the transistor would not have happened without the work of Bohr, Dirac, Schrodinger; the computer without Von Neuman and Turing; Nuclear power without Einstein, Rutherford, Curie, Fermi, Hahn etc.

  • Comment number 49.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    @45. Trout Mask Replica

    Many technologies are developed during war (nuclear), a Govt program, costly in money & human lives.

    Nicola Tesla, the inventor of Alternating Current & most of the modern world, invented privately.
    Upon his death the FBI seized all of Tesla's remaining patents which it still suppresses to this day.

    Tell me more about how the State cares about science & us :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The cigarette was invented...and marketed well...
    Cost...over 100million lives.
    There are good inventions and bad inventions...
    Whether good or bad, the free market will use them to optimise profit regardless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    "Why would the laws of economics be different here?"

    They aren't any different. Private business won't fund any research where any possible return is too long term. So government does. Or are you referring to the fantasy voodoo laws of laissez-faire economics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    32. Bastiat

    You really love selective quotes that confirm your world view don't you? The fundamental breakthroughs of the 20th Century in quantum mechanics and relativity that the led to breakthroughs in nuclear power, computing, satellites etc were almost exclusively government or university funded. The modern world you take for granted exists only because of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I hate the idea that immediate monetary value is the only thing that matters. That's the attitude that sees students choosing courses not out of enthusiasm but because they want a direct route to a highly-paid job (which is why medicine is so popular).I know enthusiasts can't build their own LHCs, but we lose something when we have no more amateurs and blue-skies thinkers in research science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    And there was me thinking the vast majority was done via publicly funded researchers.

    Which is why it's available to all and not patented by some drug company!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    "Including manpower the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has cost over £7.2 billion since 1994"....

    This is small fry compared to the financial bail out to the "square mile" and the pinstripes....

    £500BILLION...and rising...just for London...

    Now think about Europe or the USA....

    China seems to be where it's tomorrow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Why would the laws of economics be different here?

    Business innovates for profit at minimal cost. We benefit from their inventions & products. The Industrial Revolution was a real golden age of private innovation, society moved from feudal peasantry to cosmopolitan life within 2-3 generations.

    Why would we want the same guys who promised the Olympics for £2.5Bn but cost £9.4Bn in charge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    "Is funding better spent on solving practical problems?"...

    ...asks the BBC website displayed on my touchscreen tablet via the World Wide Web on the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    should put everything in to science its interesting it makes you want to better yourself in life to find the truth on why we are here how we are here and the meaning of life. ow and im an athiest religon has only brought trouble to are world it means good but all ways does harm!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    There has been a fundamental shift in big science since the cold war faded into history. Big projects now include Fusion Power which will give a direct benefit to mankid and solves the biggest of our practical problems: clean power, with far less being spent on weapons.
    There is also lots going on that is not mentioned here, including a scentist at NASA working on warp drive.


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