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Blue skies versus applied research

Tom Feilden | 06:55 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Should science be about discovery for its own sake or about solving the most serious problems of the day?

It's a question that's almost as old as science itself. The earliest reference I could find comes from Plato's Republic, where Socrates takes Glaucon to task for worrying about whether Astronomy is a worthwhile pursuit.

But it's also a question that's got today's scientists arguing amongst themselves.

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The former chief scientist Sir David King sparked off the row when he said it was "astonishing" that we were spending so much time and money on the Higgs Boson when there were much more pressing problems like climate change and environmental degradation to address.

His timing - he made the speech on the day the Large Hadron Collider was switched on - also seemed designed to provoke.

And what a reaction he got. It takes quite a lot to get Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, riled up, but he branded Sir David's comments both "misguided" and "mistaken".

Perhaps more worrying has been the steady swing of the funding pendulum towards applied research. The government has been rightly applauded for a big increase in the science budget, but increasingly ministers - and the Treasury - have emphasised tangible applications and quantifiable benefits.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to see a return on investment, or on insisting that money is efficiently spent. But 'picking winners' is a fool's game.

As Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith (the man who commissioned the LHC) says, it's not a zero sum game: you must have both blue skies and applied research.


  • Comment number 1.

    Actually the LHC seems quite cheap now compared with bailing out Wall Street.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yup, $700 billion buys a lot of science, see for some amusing examples.

  • Comment number 3.

    When questioned about blue sky research I always quote the discovery of electricity in the 19th century. At the time it was regarded as an interesting phenomenom with no practical application but look where it took us.

    Similarly the head of the US patent office said about a hundred years ago that all of the important discoveries had been made.

    Now, regardless of other spin off from building the thing, imagine if the LHC started us on a road towards understanding how gravity works and how to manipulate it.
    Science is much too important to leave to politicians who just think of the next election.

  • Comment number 4.

    Going to the moon had no practical application, but look at the spin off ... Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles!! ... ah ... hmm ..

    No - seriously - sometimes its not the research per-se but the spin offs of the engineering feats that have to be overcome that make things like LHC worthwhile.

    A (perhaps better) example: Synchrotrons - originally Synchrotrons were built for physicists to do experiments, but crystallographers got the 'spin off' of high flux x-rays. This has led to far higher resolution structural information on proteins, viruses etc. which has ultimately led to successes in developing new treatments for many diseases.

  • Comment number 5.

    First, it is the nature of science that you cannot know the payoff for a given piece of research until after the research has been conducted. This makes cost/benefit calculations in advance impossible.

    Second, it is also the nature of science for the primary outcome to be utterly unrelated to the primary endeavor. Arthur C Clarke coined the term Serendipity to describe such cases. Most of science is serendipitous.

    Third, if you factor together money burned on quangos, bail-outs, cleaning up yet another Government security breech, bribes, installing CCTV monitors that have no effect on crime but probably produce a lot of X-Rated material for the police and getting televisions in Britain tuned for Channel 5 because some idiot didn't bother to see if the frequency was in use, you are probably looking at enough money to build a dozen supercolliders and have enough spare change to refit and upgrade the entire existing science infrastructure of Britain.

    Instead, Britain has paid more for politically profitable ventures and got less out of them, whilst telling the scientists (who get very little) that they're spending too much (despite the fact that it was science that enabled people to complain so much and so easily in so much comfort).

    Lastly, Britain isn't an industrial leader except in a few niche areas. Most of what we have is imported. Britain isn't an energy leader, an agricultural leader, or a luxury products leader. There are a handful of things Britain does very well, so well that nobody rivals it. Research is one such area. If Britain stopped trying to do everything badly and focused on what it does well or adequately, then yes it would do a lot more science and a lot more inventing (Britain has the best inventors in the world), but it would make a lot more money and gain a lot more enjoyment in the process.

  • Comment number 6.

    The best phrase in science isn't "eureka" but "that's funny..."

    As others have pointed out, it is impossible to predict exactly how important fundamental research will actually be insofar as making tangible applications and quantifiable benefits until that research has been done. Electricity is one such exmaple, but I'd go farther and mention James Clark Maxwell and his unification of the electric and magnetic forces. A hugely important theoretical leap which has countless practical implications. And what of quantum mechanics? A couple of troublesome problems in physics at the end of the 19th century were only solved after making the bold speculations that spawned quantum theory. And how many applications has quantum theory had?

    Lord Kelvin in the 19th century did some experiments with currents passing through magnetic metals whilst in the presence of a magnetic field. He observed slight variations in the electrical resistance depending on the relative orientations of the the current and magnetic field - the so-called anisotropic magnetoresistance effect. The effect was small, so largely forgotten, until when in the 80's two research groups independently observed this effect again but with much high variations in resistance - the so-called giant magnetoresistance effect. The discovery of this effect lead to the invention of a device - the spin valve - which is now found in every single modern day hard drive.

    Also in the 1980s, de Groot et al. looked theoretically at a class of materials called the half Heusler alloys. Their theoretical research showed these materials had the exotic property of half metallicity. These half metals will no doubt play an important role in future spintronic devices.

    If fundamental research which had no obvious practical importance had been shelved back at the end of 1800s, we would have virtually nothing of what we enjoy today in the modern world.

    I for one never used to listen to Dave King (I've dropped the "sir" on purpose) because he hasn't a clue about anything outside of the research he used to undertake and is highly motivated politically. His latest set of comments clearly indicate the man is grossly out of touch with the state of modern science and technology, doesn't know his history and is exceptionally short sighted. The less attention we give this idiot the better.


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