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 97.

    "... the Japanese were attempting to surrender already before USAF got to try their new toy twice"

    I gather your grasp of history is not good. The Emporer forbade surrender, until it became clear that they could be totally wiped off the face of the planet by these "new toys" if they continued the war

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    I've read a lot of comments about what we could do with the Olympic money. Why don't we revolutionise the Olympics, and have a science / technology "Olympiad" and use the money that is used to put on the Olympics to fund the contest? Make it exciting enough, televised and dramatic and people will get behind it!...who knows the 2016 winner could be a manned mission to Mars!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Anti-tobacco science and climate science suggest otherwise. Big money means 'scientists' will find what their backers want. (That Tobacco causes broken elbows or whatever),

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @65. Trout
    I though the State, then run by the church, persecuted this scientist for his discoveries? Is that not right?
    What's the diff with the today's State ridiculing climate sceptic scientists in favour of scientists who suit their political agenda?

    @85. Trout
    Agreed, we'll never know. But the harnessing of the Atom occurred 1st as a weapon. Nuke power came from this didn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Yes, all of these big science projects are a waste of time and money.
    All of it should be spent on health and helping people, not wasting time.
    Let's face it, these projects are all unnecessary as the answer to every science question can already be found in the Bible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    There are alot of negative vibes coming off this forum towards scientists. If you think scientists are that awful then perhaps you should try living for a week without the things developed as a result of scientific advancement. that includes electricity, Buildings with insulation, Ovens (except wood fire) Water from your tap (water cleaning was produced by science), Cash and bank cards gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    "Is big-ticket research funding better spent solving the world's practical problems?"

    As long as we have politicians in charge of the money, the answer is no!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    76. Bastiat

    If you seriously think that there's a conspiracy of the control hungry UN, tax hungry governments, grant hungry scientists and other such as oil companies and global corporations intent on falsifying science for some perverse end, you are mad. Scientists do not win Nobel prizes by doing bad science. Nor do they enter science for the money and they can earn more in many other fields.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Scientific funding is essential. Call it sci-fi nonsense if you wish, but humanity must get to a stage where colonisation of other planets is possible because we're only one decent sized piece of rock away from extinction - and then everything any of us have ever done since the dawn of man will have been for nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    80. Howesyourview
    Who would win at an olympic cycling event? The one with the state of the art, expensive, well designed, perfected bike made out of expensive materials which has taken years of research...or a bike from halfords.

    Wouldn't it be the one with the state of the art, expensive, well designed, perfected rider made out of expensive materials which has taken years of research...

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    "Direct incomes" would include positron emission tomography, scanning electron microscopy and laser and microwave communication

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Just the fact that I get a good night's sleep as NASA invented my memory foam matress makes funding these projects worthwhile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Are u saying the private research wouldn't have done it, cheaper, with less deaths?"

    Well it didn't and we'll never know if it would have if it had been left to itself. Very doubtful as the costs are enormous and payback long term and you are also confusing nuclear POWER and WEAPONS. As usual you respond to an example you think supports your case and none of the many that don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @68. Dan_Dover

    I just feel that Govt is very inefficient at everything it does because it's doing it with someone else's money.

    If Govt invests in an area, private companies can't compete with this inefficient monopoly which distorts this area of investment by taking resources which would otherwise have been used by the private sector (the voluntary sector) in a much more efficient way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Every penny spent on science is worthwhile and often leads into new areas of research and development which benefit humanity - the exception of course being money squandered on nuclear weapons development. LHC was/is a bargain - as Prof.Brian Cox described, cost less than all science research, ever, by UK government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    71 penguin337
    "Unbelievers in politicised science, like global warming and the MMR vaccine are branded as heretics by the establishment"

    No, it's deniers of hard data and clear evidence that are branded heretics.

    76 Bastiat
    "It's a famous historical eg of how the State's conventional wisdom costs society dearly."

    But you got the story completely wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    2 Hours ago

    Maybe God gave us these tools to help us understand everything?

    Maybe his lonely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Here is a simple summary that helps everybody understand about funding scientific experiments. Who would win at an olympic cycling event? The one with the state of the art, expensive, well designed, perfected bike made out of expensive materials which has taken years of research...or a budget bike from have your answer

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    A little example of relative cost

    Nuclear Fusion research at ITER, which the BBC reported as being massively expensive and questioned if the expense could be justified.

    ITER annual budget, paid by most of the developed world, is the same as BBC2 annual budget

    Just imagine the criticism if the world spent the equivalent of BBC1's budget on research to solve all of our energy needs

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    In the 16th and 17th Centuries the patronage of the rich and of the universities were the equivalent of the state funding of today. No-one sought a profit in funding Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Boyle, Newton. The government funding of the Royal Society and Observatory and their equivalents in Europe were in the 17C. It was their work that directly led to the industrial revolution.


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