10 reasons to buy into big science

When people hear the price tag for big science experiments like the Large Hadron Collider or the Hubble Space Telescope they wonder what the benefits are that justify the cost. I am not talking about projects with obvious potential benefits such as a fusion reactor. This is about pure science, why is it worth doing?  In fact there are lots of reasons so here is my list of the top 10, starting with the least important.

10 –  spin-off innovations: When scientists are asked to justify why the LHC was worth building they often roll out the list of technical innovations that have been invented at CERN; MRI scanners, touch sensitive displays and of course the world wide web. NASA has an even longer list from non-stick pans to velcro. This only makes number ten on my list because I think most of them would have been invented by industry anyway. The advantage of inventing them at CERN or NASA is that they are not owned by private companies. What would the web be like if it has been invented by a computer or telecoms company?

9 – National Prestige: New scientific discoveries can make big news stories and for many countries there is a lot of pride in being able to call in their own experts who have worked on the project to give their summary of what it means. Politicians love it.

8 – Entertainment: TV documentaries, science magazines, blogs etc, they are there because many people find big science entertaining.

7 – Employment: Big science projects employ lots of people, another secret favorite of politicians.

6 – International Cooperation: This is rarely brought up but it is very important. Science is a very international business that brings together people from different countries. They tend to put aside national differences because what matters to them is the science. The relationships last and carry over into industry and even politics.

5 – The development of hi-tech industries: Building an experiment like the Large Hadron Collider requires new technologies such as superconductors, cryogenics and large-scale computing facilities. These are subcontracted to private companies that develop new methods with applications elsewhere. It is very hard to quantify the benefit that this brings but in economic terms it could be worth a lot more than the money spent on experiments that push the limits of technology.

4- Education: Places like CERN are packed with young people and the directors like to brag about it to the point of being openly ageist as employers. This is good news (unless you are over 30 and interested in ajob at CERN) because it means that these people are learning new skills and going on to use them elsewhere in industry or other educational centres. Students and graduates at CERN or NASA have to learn how to do research  in physics, engineering and IT. In a world where science underpins the economies of developed countries it is an educational resource that no self-respecting nation can afford to miss out on if they want a prosperous future. Again this is rarely quantified but we hope that politicians who allocate the funds appreciate it.  In my opinion it is the top practical reason for funding big science.

3 – Inspiration: Big science inspires young minds

2 – Value for Money: When people quote the cost of something like the Large Hadron Collider in billions of dollars it certainly seems like a lot of money, but you have to remember that it is spread out over many years and many countries. The UK pays about £70 million per year for CERN. It is still a lot but it is a small part of the UK research budget and it brings all the above benefits. I have never seen a cost benefit analysis done on this basis but I bet it comes out as good value.

1 –  For the Knowledge: It has to be the number one reason for doing pure science, because we want to know and should know the answers to big questions. It is just part of what makes us human.

15 Responses to 10 reasons to buy into big science

  1. anna v says:

    I would add:

    a)History of science gives more reasons.

    When electromagnetism was unified in Maxwell’s equations could anybody foresee the intimate connection to our everyday life ?

    When uranium was being explored and quantum mechanics postulated would anyone foresee the uses of nuclear forces and quantum mechanics?

    LHC and the concomitant theoretical research is opening new horizons exciting for the scientists but we, as our forefathers before us, cannot really guess what the applications of reaching a higher integrated theory may turn out to be.

    b) If one looks at past human civilizations one can distinctly see the desire to leave a monument on earth much larger than the individual human: The Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal , the medieval cathedrals, etc. There is inherent in human societies as a meta level, a desire for a collective expression. These large expensive experiments as well as the space explorations are the cathedrals of our time, imo.

    I would like to add that the expense of LHC is not much larger than the expense of a modern airplane carrier, to put things into economic perspective.

    • Ervin Goldfain says:

      The unfortunate reality is that funding agencies are typically bureaucratic institutions which do not share these progressive views.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Unexpected future applications of the scientific results did not make my top 10 because it is hard to know if it will happen or when. I don’t think history can be relied on as a guide.

      I think applications are more likely to be indirect in nature, e.g. the maths needed to build a unified theory to explain the discoveries could be applicable in other ways. I would not put that in any funding applications though.

      • Ervin Goldfain says:

        “They must understand some of it otherwise such projects would not be funded up to now.”

        Of course there are exceptions. It is true that there are people in these agencies who understand and support the value of fundamental science. However, too often big projects tend to be slashed because of budgetary constraints (especially in tough economic times) or because of political reasons that have nothing to do with science. SSC is a good example.

  2. Excellent Post!

    Nothing great in the history of human progress from the time of the pyramids could have been achieved without cost overruns- of we see the application of our minds to the world of wider technology as worthwhile progress (the Egyptians could have built an automobile but such a prototype would require millenniums to bring the cost within reach of many people) as we find and designate great wonders in the world.

    I would add that although we do not see it now- the exploring of fundamental knowledge on the level of frontier big science and not just the state of it of the day- will lead to a better understanding of our biology- that at least should get some peoples attention.

    Invent the governor and one of two working a steam engine is free to do other things like poetry- so said Bergsen. Progress is the freeing of us from slavery historically, the freeing of our spirit.

    The Pe Sla

  3. Tony Smith says:

    With respect to International Cooperation
    to what extent is China involved in the LHC ?

    I see on the web that China is a Non-Member state
    (less involved than Observer States like USA and Japan)
    given China’s economic status in the world
    (big and not dominated by Hedge-Fund Financial Services
    which are now showing signs of instability)
    I would think that it might be a source of stable funding
    for future LHC operations
    Chinese physicists were to be invited to have major roles
    in data analysis etc.

    Is that happening on a substantial scale
    (that is, on a scale comparable to USA involvement) ?


    • Philip Gibbs says:

      The Chinese have their own small accelerator in Beijing and have expressed an interest in contributing to the ILC. They would like to host it. Hopefully this will lead to something. Perhaps they feel that the LHC is too far advanced at this stage for them to gain much benefit from joining now.

  4. Tony says:

    Thanks for your timely post. Of course people can argue about the order of minor rankings. But I would put no.1 in 40 point font at the top. Striving to understand the world and see it in different ways is fundamental to what makes us human. High tech spinoffs are indeed a fortunate part of what we do but unfortunately this has been no.1 in the beancounters minds for ages. Over time the nameless grey bureaucrats skew fundamental science to be things like how to build a better sheep dip and data mining of geological deposits in satellite pics.

    Its a constant battle to push forward the fundamental aspect of what we do. I am so glad nature is being a wee bit difficult at the LHC so far. Its not a ready meal to be served up in 5 minutes

  5. Mike says:

    Sadly, these same top 10 arguments were made for the Apollo program before it was mothballed. Similar arguments for Orion and other aerospace projects. Science is a little different – it’s about knowledge and the LHC was worth the bill, but it may be that governments will see big science like big Apollo programs – and the same arguments will be interpreted the same way. We will have to move to science projects that cost a lot less – it’s inevitable

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Hopefully the parallel is not too good. The Apollo program was driven by cold war politics which has never been a factor in collider physics.

      It is possible that big science projects will go the same way but it is not inevitable.

  6. Tony Smith says:

    If European funding gets tight, then the SSC situation may be a useful precedent, showing what SSC mistakes need to be avoided with LHC.

    When the US decided that it needed outside help to fund SSC,
    the US “invited” Europe to participate
    the SSC bureaucracy was already in place (same as with LHC now)
    the high-level SSC bureaucrats (all US) refused to allow any European slots in the top levels of the SSC bureaucracy.

    The Europeans naturally said why should we put billions into SSC if we do not get any high-level administration representation
    when we can take those same billions and make the LHC to find the Higgs ourselves.
    (A German friend of mine said at the time something like
    “The US wants our money but they want all the protons to carry American Flags.” )


    Now, Europe (and US) are under funding stress
    it is likely that China is rich enough to help out, particularly with funding through the repair/upgrade of 2013,
    CERN and the LHC should be sure to offer China significant high-level administrative positions in exchange for funding help.
    It would really be a win-win situation:
    LHC would not have to worry about unstable Euro/US funding
    China would have full partner representation on the machine that will (if it is properly repaired/upgraded) explore the Higgs sector and show how physics works at energies beyond Electroweak Symmetry Breaking.

    Also, those results should show whether ILC or CLIC or Muon Collider is the best way to explore that region (my favorite is the Muon Collider, which can be happily put in the Western China desert with little danger to populations from secondary radiation).


  7. Sorin says:

    Your analysis implies a clear bias for Big Science == HEP. Arguably it can be equal to Physics but you should seriously consider not only Physics (and even less HEP).

    Science making spin-off it’s already a well chewed rag, unfortunately true only for the past. Today, with internet (and yes, www) innovation can and does take place anywhere but not only in the lab anymore. This MRI story is way too old (it should have been replaced anyway by PET). Again, think off HEP – it will open your views 🙂

    Just a thought: is it really optimum to pay such a bill to find (or not) Higgs this decade? What if LHC would have been built say the next decade?

    HEP has had its share since quiet a while now and if you want to bring into your list politics and society, then consider a baseline of cost to the taxpayer and impact to current state of the society (have you heard of the word crisis BTW?)


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