Published in Tribune, 26 September 2008
WITH the recent focus of American election coverage on pork (pies, barrels and lipstick) and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s murky involvement in the infamous bridge to nowhere, it’s easy to forget an even bigger barrel of pork on our own doorstep. Pork is tasty, of course, and the Large Hadron Collider, the enormous particle accelerator recently inaugurated at the international CERN research facility in Switzerland is a shining example of how special interests and budget stitch-ups can actually lead to something inspirational.
The Large Hadron Collider cost a staggering amount of money – estimates vary between £2 billion and £5 billion. And there is no guarantee that the cost will be recouped through commercial spin-offs – applications, if there are any, could be decades or centuries away. None of that makes a jot of difference to me. I think the LHC is great.
Whether you consider pork barrel spending worthwhile very much depends if you are the pig or the diner. For the 50 people who live on Gravina Island, the £250 million bridge the Alaskan government wanted to build would have been a great investment. For taxpayers in the other 49 states who were footing the bill, it was less palatable.
The same goes for the LHC – a lot of money is being put into it by taxpayers who won’t see much return. But if you have the slightest interest in science, the research there is fascinating, with the potential to give new insights on why the universe is the way it is. And if scientists have managed to extract billions of pounds from their governments for this, good luck to them.
Government spending in most areas is usually at least tenuously linked to need – even if that need is the simple political expedient of bribing an important or influential group. Alaska falls firmly in this camp. In a couple of areas, though, the normal laws of politics do not seem to apply. The Olympic Games, nuclear weapons, space and Antarctic exploration are a few examples, and they all share a point in common in that they serve as proxies for the projection of national power.
Since going to war has slowly fallen out of fashion, beating other nations on the sporting field serves as a decent proxy. Similarly, while you can’t easily annihilate neighbouring countries any more (unless you don’t mind being hauled in front of a court for genocide), you can still maintain a nuclear arsenal which shows that you could, if you really wanted to. Annexing lands in Antarctica is banned by international treaty now, but countries can still project their power and make de facto claims on its territory by placing scientific research stations there. The money the government spends in all of these areas bears little relation to their practical importance and a great deal to national pride. If you can throw your financial weight around, your country looks good.
There’s something similar thing going on with particle physics research, even if CERN is actually an international project. Particle physics is closely related to nuclear research and the two emerged around the same time. Atom bomb research being on the whole hush-hush, funding particle physics research is perhaps a way for countries to actually publicise their know-how in atomic physics.
Whatever the reason, it is surely good that time, talent, resources and money are poured into peaceful scientific ends like the LHC rather than into building ever more powerful nuclear bombs.
The Sun, that great purveyor of unbiased science news, saw things differently and claimed, with typical understatement, that the LHC risked accidentally creating a black hole, which would suck up the planet and squish it into a blob the size of a marble. This already unlikely scenario was further undermined when the world conspicuously failed to end when the LHC was switched on. But even if it were a theoretical risk, the chances of global catastrophe at CERN’s hands would be rather lower than those at the hands of the Dr Strangeloves at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.
So when it comes to particle physics, I’m a Gravina Islander. If pork barrel funding is used to carry out fascinating research and diverts resources away from nuclear war, great.
Scientists are often offended to hear lay people argue that such political motivations, rather than pure scientific value, play a big role in how scientific priorities are set. In the academic bubble, they convince themselves that science functions in an ideological vacuum where facts are facts and other considerations play no role. They take it as a criticism of – or even a lack of respect for – science to suggest that research priorities are based on anything other than scientific merit.
In fact it’s nothing of the sort. CERN’s research is inspirational and sheds new light on the way the universe began. But that’s not the point. Plenty of other areas of science are interesting and worthwhile, but hopelessly under-funded.
CERN’s uncelebrated brilliance is its skill for squeezing huge amounts of money out of governments. And that’s one thing at least that the moose-hunting, creationist, global warming-denying Governor of Alaska has in common with the physicists at the LHC.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Published in Tribune, 26 September 2008
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