The future of science

The 2011 Lepton-Photon conference has been a fantastic event. I got to meet with other enthusiastic students like me. I got to see the Eastern World for the first time, experience the tropical monsoon, and walk in the streets of the city of Mumbai, populated by 20 million people (that’s 2/3 my country of origin!).

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the main focus of the conference was the future of particle physics. What happens if we don’t find the Higgs boson at the LHC? What happens if we find it but nothing else? Will it be the doom of large scientific endeavours towards the smallest components of the Universe? More importantly, will people across the world still be ready to invest some of their precious public funds into these searches if no new discovery was to be made at the LHC?

The question of funding in science is a highly important and complex one. It is especially easy for a student like me to never think about it. It seems to me like there’s plenty of money in research, as the grant coming from the federal government that is allocated to my local high energy physics group is large enough to send several students several times a year 9 time zones away, so that they can get closer to their collaborators and their experiment. It seems big to me, because for a single person, it is a huge sum of money. But our group is not composed of a single person.

It is also very easy to remain unaware of the constant efforts being deployed to obtain this money, whether it is my supervisor writing a grant request, the Canadian Association of Physicists fighting budget cuts in fundamental research or Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson promoting the value of science to the public. After all, private business generally don’t fund fundamental research because it is hard to capitalize on the far-reaching outcomes. In the end, the belt is pretty tight, and a lot of businesses would be impressed with the efficiency with which scientists can spend money.

Nowadays, there are a number of important frontiers of science which cannot be pushed further unless large resources are being put into it. I am thinking not only of monetary resources, but also of manpower. Every ongoing experiment that was discussed during the Lepton-Photon conference is an international effort. These projects need to be international for two reasons. First, the expertise required to execute these experiments is scattered worldwide. Second, no single government is willing to commit to fund completely one of these projects.

The United States astonishes me with their pride and short-sightedness when they commit to projects like the Superconducting Supercollider, the Space Shuttle Program and more recently the James Webb Space Telescope. The United States is one of these countries where being anti-science is perceived as a good thing by apparently a lot of people, and they still try to build machines that will compete with other machines that have arisen from an international effort. I think it is time for them to wake up. The golden age of the Manhattan Project where the US is capable of getting a clear edge in science and technology over the rest of the world is over. They need to put their pride aside and invest their tremendous resources in international science efforts. They can still get some pride in being major contributors to these projects, as I have no doubt they can be.

This brings me to the issue of credit. Working in a large collaboration, where all the scientific papers have more than 3000 authors, it is time to forget about things like attributing discoveries to a few individuals. I know that we all crave inspirational stories of individuals single-handedly pushing the limits of our knowledge, but that era is mostly dead. We now come to an age where people who will be the happiest in a scientific research job are those who work for the improvement of human knowledge, not for the glory of being the sole historical discoverer of some new life-changing fact about nature.

It is easy to fantasize about how much of a genius Einstein, Maxwell or Newton was, but the truth is, science is getting more difficult. The only way to match that new level of difficulty is to match it with more dedication, more originality and more hard-work than ever before. As we found out over the years, a single person may not be up to the challenge, but groups of people tend to be surprisingly resourceful. Collaborations are the future of science.

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3 Responses to The future of science

  1. suvayu says:

    I didn’t quite follow your comment about the Shuttle program and the JWST. Aren’t those some of the better examples of thinking ahead? Or are you referring to the fact that they are US projects and not international collaborations?

  2. Michel says:

    Well, you are probably aware that the JWST is in jeopardy right now. The house of congress is planning on terminating the project due to the fact that it’s running over budget. It has also been estimated recently by an independent firm that to bring the JWST project to completion would cost another time what they have spent so far. I am just saying that the JWST probably wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble if it was an international project to begin with. With an international project, individual countries don’t have to make such a huge commitment, and the troubles of running over budget can be shared. Right now, I fear that the US congress will just trash the JWST, and that no one has the installations to finish the project so that even if the ESA wanted to buy it and finish it, it would cost them even more than it would cost the US to finish it. And the US are just too proud to open up the project to international aid at this point. The pride of the US is costing us really good science, and it’s pissing me off. It’s the Superconducting Super Collider all over again.

  3. suvayu says:

    Ah! So it is the second point. I see what you mean. Its sad indeed.

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