Cost of scientific research – and political naivity

I ended up immersed in the internet activity around the CERN physics seminar on the Higg’s boson last night. It was an unprecedented phenomenon.

However, amidst all the fascination, celebration and humour at the (possible) confirmation of the Higg’s particle I was sidetracked into a twitter debate with a local politician. In what appeared to be the sole negative tweet of the night she lamented to cost of the research involved: “the cost is depressing, $4 billion or thereabouts, only if it makes a real difference.” In later tweets she referred to the “cost to some other priority”, “the sacrifice it required,” “what is not done, who is not fed, who is not saved,” “tradeoffs,” “trying to justify this cost to the people I work for,” and “you can’t deny that something else is sacrificed in the choice [of research].”

Her comments were quickly criticised by a number of local people and, in the end, I think she realised she had made a political mistake. (Made worse by her being one of the co-leaders of her political party). But I really hope she learns something from the experience. It worries me that we have political leaders in this country who have such a naive understanding of science and the issues involved when it comes to considering science funding alongside other priorities.

The multidimensional crossword metaphor

Science is like a multidimensional crossword puzzle

In my post Scientific knowledge – reliable but not certain I quoted philosopher of science Susan Haack. She uses the metaphor of a crossword puzzle to illustrate the complexity, messiness and provisional nature of scientific knowledge. In effect last night we were seeing that in  process. The Higg’s particle had previously been “pencilled in” – last night they started to ink it in. Something is definitely there but we are still unsure of all the intersecting “words.” But we have some better clues.

The crossword metaphor is also very useful to illustrate to complexities involved when it comes to considering funding priorities in science. We just can’t isolate one “word,” (or research area) from another “word.” The influence of a “word” extend not only to neighbouring “words” but right around the puzzle – which in this case is very large and multidimensional.

Fundamental and practical research are interdependent

This means that so-called “blue sky” research just can’t be isolated from research which is directly related to a current problem. Discoveries made in our understanding of subatomic physics influences elaboration of our knowledge in chemistry, biology and social communication. It is naive to approach research funding as if the discoveries made in such “blue sky” areas have nothing to do with the research and possible discoveries in agriculture, health, teaching and communication. Or in future technology which may radically improve our quality of life.

One could rake up all sorts of relevant examples of how past blue sky research has influenced our life today, or how it may influence it in the future. But consider this. Should we argue that the expenses involved in launching satellites, establishing a human presence in near earth space, etc., are so large we can’t justify them? (Because they are large). And in the next breath argue that climate change issues are so important that the money “saved” be invested in climate change research, or improving food production in developing countries? One has to be pretty naive not to see the obvious connection between near earth space research and climate research. And the influence of climate on food production. Many of the problems  causing uncertainty in our understanding of climate change will only be answered by satellite observations.

When I started my research career I decided to choose areas like agriculture where it seemed possible to have a more direct influence on overcoming poverty and improving the quality of life. But as a chemist I have seen throughout my career that my research also depended on the previous (and sometimes current) findings of chemical and physical research considered fundamental or “blue sky.” Clearly such research also contributes, even if only “indirectly,” to resolution of practical problems and improvement of our quality of life. It would have been silly for me to argue that social investment in fundamental research should be stopped and the money diverted into my research area!

This does not mean that each researcher should  pick research interests at random in the belief that it all helps. Of course they should follow their particular interests and ideological or moral desires.

Balancing research funding priorities

Nor does it mean that governments should blindly just throw money at scientific research without any prioritising. Just that politicians should recognise the inter-related nature of research areas and take a responsible approach which does not cause underfunding of either fundamental research, applied research, or urgent humanitarian research areas.

As for the CERN research. The technology involved is huge and ground-breaking. Of course that is expensive. So expensive that governments decided to fund the research internationally. Spreading the costs has enabled governments to contribute without diverting important funding away from other areas. Funding of the International Space Station is also international for the same reason.

I think simple consideration of the history of CERN will show governments have been responsible in their funding. They have not been robbing Paul to pay Peter but paying them both – in a balanced and democratic way. Politicians who lament that international investment and cite other areas they think more deserving are ignoring that history. They are also showing ignorance about the nature of scientific knowledge.

And come on. Get real! The time to debate priorities is during the early stage when funding decisions can be balanced. Not at the time the rest of the world is celebrating a magnificent human achievement.

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One response to “Cost of scientific research – and political naivity

  1. Richard Christie

    There is something lamentable about a species that manages to unravel the fabric of the universe just at the time it irreversibly cooks its own environment.

    Like

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