Preposterous Universe

Monday, April 26, 2004
The cost of discovery

Good news and bad news. First the good: David Appell has restarted his blog, Quark Soup. Good links to all sorts of science stories, with interesting commentary.

Now the bad: in one of David's recent posts, he brings to our attention a slightly loopy screed about experimental gravitation by Gregg Easterbrook. It's a tired argument, sloppily made: we shouldn't spend government money on speculative scientific research without any tangible benefits to society. In particular, he picks on the LIGO experiment to detect gravitational radiation.
But while we're counting tax-funded abstract science boondoggles, let us not forget the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, a $365 million government project that is all but certain to have no practical result, other than as a jobs program.
He stoops as low as you might fear, suggesting that we should be spending the money on trying to cure AIDS. (I'm sure that, absolutist as he apparently is, Easterbrook donates all of his above-subsistence-level income directly to medical research. Those of us who think that we can try to help sick people and pursue other interests at the same time will presumably lead more complicated lives.)

Now, Easterbrook has long ago forfeited any right to be taken seriously when talking about science, for example in his classic discussion of extra dimensions, in which he can't see why scientists are happy to talk about spatial dimensions but not spiritual ones. I wasn't blogging at the time of that travesty, but he was justly ridiculed by Kieran Healy, Atrios, and many others.

But it's a shame that he makes so little sense, because the question itself is well worth asking. How much money should we, as a society, devote to basic scientific research? It is undoubtedly expensive, and getting more so -- the next big step in particle physics (after the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva) will be a twenty-mile long Linear Collider, whose cost will be measured in billions of dollars. The cost will be spread out over multiple countries and many years, but it still represents a substantial chunk of change. (I gave a talk on the connections between a linear collider and cosmology.) In a well-ordered society, it's worth spending some fraction of our money on projects of this sort; but what should the fraction be? Libertarian fantasies aside, private donations just aren't going to cut it.

You could talk about technological spinoffs from basic science, but that misses the point. The reason why it's worth spending people's money on research into the fundamental workings of the universe is because people want to know the answers. They might not understand the details, and more often than not they've been traumatized by science classes from high school, but ordinary people really care about these deep questions. That's why they buy books and go to lectures by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, or Brian Greene. The amount that gets spent on this kind of research is small compared to numerous other government projects (bridges in Alaska, anyone?), and the results are an unambiguous good for society. And the unfortunate fact is, some experiments aren't worth doing at all unless you're willing to spend the money. For half the cost of the Linear Collider, you won't get half the science -- you'll get nothing. Maybe that's the choice that the country wants to make; but that's not the impression I get from talking with people on airplanes who are fascinated by what I do.

Here is my favorite part of Easterbrook's latest:
Today's science community is pressuring Congress and the legislatures of Europe to fund incredibly expensive mega-projects almost certain to benefit no one but the scientists themselves. It's hard not to conclude that physicists and their universities are using mumbo-jumbo about Einstein and the universe--knowing not one member of Congress has any idea what a "gravity wave" is supposed to be or whether this matters--to hoodwink taxpayers into providing cushy jobs for tenured researchers and their postdocs.
Ah, yes, the cushy jobs. I'm so jaded by now, it's nice to be reminded about how easy my life is. Just last night (Sunday), when I bumped into one of my students in the office around 10 p.m., and we talked about modifications of the Friedmann equation in the presence of Lorentz-violating vector fields, here I thought we were working hard just because we cared so much about the research we were doing. I had completely forgotten that we were really in it for the extended vacation time, exorbitant salary, and total absence of responsibility that comes with an academic appointment.

Don't get me wrong; I love my job, wouldn't trade it for anything. But "cushy" isn't the word I (or anyone in their right mind) would use to describe it. Almost anyone who grinds through grad school and postdocs to get a faculty job as a scientist could be making more money for less work doing something else. But there are a lot more people trying to get these jobs than there are positions, for the same reason why the public is willing to support basic research -- we want to know how our universe works. It's the only one we have.

Update: Damn it, more evidence that administration is strangling NASA's pure science budget, in favor of going to the Moon and Mars. Paul Krugman said it best: "Money-saving suggestion: let's cut directly to the scene where Mr. Bush dresses up as an astronaut, and skip the rest of his expensive, pointless — but optimistic! — Moon-base program."

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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