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 157.


    You comment on science but you'd make a terrible scientist yourself. Science requires one to adjust one's beliefs as the facts change. You do the opposite. You fit your facts around your belief system (government = evil failure), while ignoring anything contradictory.

    By-and-large markets do things better than govt. But not science - that is clear to anyone with their eyes open.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Which .. is the most promising? Which one misses out?
    Which may possibly have the most appeal,

    The science to be funded should be which lead to progress; that which has the most chance of answering important questions and idemtifyng new ones.
    The science that leads to the most profit is the antithesis of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    @142. Trout Mask Replica

    As usual I disagree with the Statist approach.
    I feel that the Govt distorts the market, hindering voluntary enterprise in areas Govt meddles in.

    Yes Govt can invent... but by nature Govt is inefficient & slow. Hardly the agent u want driving science & improvements in our quality in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Look at the Rothamstead GM research for a great example of government-funded science. All information from it is completely open-source, meaning anyone can recreate the experiments or use the plants they engineer.
    One of the main arguments against GM is that big business uses it to hold farmers to ransom over seed contracts. This is doing the exact opposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    A recent tv program questioned the benefits so far of the human genome project. The upshot was that it was hyped by scientists in order to obtain the necessary funding. The 'benefits' would most certainly be with us - well sort of about now, but aren't, and most likely never will be as its - err, a bit more complex than we first thought. Damn cunning DNA, got loads of money though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    There isn't a single reason to lump the whole of scientific R&D into the pursuit of the 'God Particle's' identitiy, but rather, we should be conscious of the concept of the "adjacent possibility." Great things happen when great minds gather. Thus, if an international coallition for genomics were established with physicists, programmers, and artists, I believe great advancements could occur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    I don't think the Dragons are the people for this.

    I work for a Big Pharma company, and I KNOW where most of the money for drugs comes from. Governments. Big Pharma looks at govt funded research to find what is most likely to be tested and saleable in 5 years and goes for it. Without Gov funding it would be nothing.
    Lesson? You need both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Spending Govt money on this is a damn sight better than some of the things they are currently spending money on.

    You're more likely to see something useful come out of funding scientific research than proxy conflicts in the middle east, for excample.

  • Comment number 149.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    A business searching for profit would not waste too much resources .."

    Of course, all those state funded astonomers that revolutionised navigation and timekeeping in the 18C; all those pure chemists and physicists that created the chemical and electricity industry in the 19C; all those pure quantum and solid state physicists that created the IT and electronics industries of the 20C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    @132. alexicon
    " choosing to begin smoking is a voluntary act"
    An act manipulated by inefficient private sector advertising, not driven by actual demand.

    " Govt protects these harmful products (through laws)"
    No laws protect smoking, the industry actually wastes good money to evade legal action.

    The example is spot on - which is why you don't like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Who know where research will lead. That is why it is so important. After all who would have thought that amongst a group of scientists working on understanding the nature of matter, would be one who develped the protocols of internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    @139. laughingdevil

    I know what ur saying. I agree, we really need these drugs. But I think the free market (voluntary people) can know better than the guys who fluffed West Coast rail last month for eg to select:

    Which scientist is the most promising? Which one misses out?
    Which strain science may possibly have the most appeal, which stain misses out?
    To be picking the winners & the losers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Dear Trout Mask Replica

    I am communicating with the internet purely through the power of prayer.

    Yep - GOD is an ISP as well, there are no ends to HIS power. Read it and weep unbeliever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Provocations provoke provocations ... In these austere times, should we be trying to solve the practical problems the world faces, rather than parking gigantic sums at the banks? ... The equivalent of £5bn (peanuts comparatively) would sort the UK Higher Education out in order to give the young generation some decent education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    120. Bastiat

    You really are a hoot! Any example of private enterprise failure is put down to government intervention. Any example of a government funded success, the private enterprise would have done faster, better, cheaper (but existentially clearly did not).

    We need both: long term, speculative research funded communally and commercialisation by industry. This has worked for 500 years

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The model T could be seen as a liner extrapolation from the first wheeled vehicles, the basics were there thousands of years before Ford. Effective driverless vehicles are becoming viable, we are circling back to the days when my grandmother's good horse could see her sleeping family safely back home on its own. After a toxic phase we are heading towards a cleaner one = more qualitative change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Big is not necessarily better, but if you want to crack a problem it can be the only way.
    Curing cancers is an example where the scope of the work is so big that only a huge, non profit driven, programme can do it. Huge resources went into fundamental research.
    Was it/is it wasteful?
    Ask someone whose relative survived cancer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Bastait "A business searching for profit would not waste too much resources that wouldn't be embraced by society."

    Utter tosh! A busniess won't invest in anything that won't turn a profit in the next few years. Some science takes DECADES of research. Take anti-biotics, we need new ones, big pharma isn't interested, 100's of millions will likely die unless govt fund research!

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    @132. alexicon
    True, but at least choosing to begin smoking is a voluntary act, although harmful chemicals create addiction. Govt protects these harmful products (through laws), who would normally fall under the gamut of tort law and a duty of care not to harm.

    I don't think the Japanese civilian population volunteered to be nuked.

    I think the comparison between 2 bad inventions is a bad one.


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