Science & Environment

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

Image caption 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.

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.

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

Image caption 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.

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.

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.