Big science and the $6bn dollar man

Higgsboson This Wednesday will finally see the start of the biggest experiment in human history, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. It has cost somehwere in the region of $6bn so is understandably getting lots of questions asked about how to justify such mind boggling expenditure.

The classic response to these sort of questions is to say that Big Science projects like CERN/LHC have led to all kinds of major commerical spin-offs. For example, the world wide web was invented at CERN, and famously not patented. However to judge something based on it’s unintended consequences is a strange justification. A much tougher sell is the fact that the discoveries that result from big science may often not pay back for decades or even centuries. Creating space for that type of research requires foresight but also considerable political courage and conviction.

One of the major scientific discoveries at the LHC is prediced to be the discovery of the Higgs Boson, sometimes called ‘The God Particle’. This is the particle which is what gives matter it’s mass. You could well ask ‘is that worth $6bn?’, but I think that’s the wrong question.

On a personal aside, Peter Higgs was one of my professors at Edinburgh University and it was the toughest course I ever did, but very satisfying in a very geeky ‘maths as a performance art’ kind of way. Anyway, we’ll hopefully know soon if he was right and hand him a nobel prize.

I believe we live in an overly productivity obsessed age and we don’t have the space to think/innovate in a our public and private organisations. I think we need the foresight and investment into big science where the outcome is deliberately unknown and unclear. To paraphrase Tim Berners Lee, ‘If we knew where we were going, it wouldn’t be called research’.

Comments

  1. Hi Roland
    That’s a very gestalt hemisphere way of looking at things in what is predominantly a logical hemisphere world.
    More please.
    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Laura – thanks for teh link. I’m not sure I actually disagree substantially with David King (and I’m not just saying that because he is also a Nesta fellow). I like the idea of thematic research that is far more outward focussed on global problems/issues and this is part of what inspired our Carbon Crucible we’ve just launched:
    http://www.nesta.org.uk/carbon-crucible/
    I do fear that we are in a horrible middle ground where academics don’t have the time to focus on big issues but neither have the ability to pursue blue skies thinking, due to short term and overly narrow grants.
    I guess one of the reasons I like the LHC project is the sheer scale and ambition of it, which contrasts to the more incremental short term research programmes that tend to dominate.
    Graham – thanks for your comment which I take as a compliment, though it may not be intended to be one. I’ve blogged before about the excessive emphasis on productivity which leads on incremenalism, which this post builds upon. See here for some more:
    http://blogs.nesta.org.uk/connect/2007/09/space-to-think-.html

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