The Western world keeps cutting its science research budget because of the economic crisis. As China rises - funnelling tons of money into science - our obtuse politicians don't realise that without pure research they are sentencing us to irrelevance and oblivion.
The latest example of this short-sighted stupidity is the European Union demanding that CERN cut its budget by $US135 million over five years. $US135 million in five years is nothing. To give you a sense of scale, the European Union will spend $US10.6 billion just on bureaucracy in one year.
As a result of this negligible budget cut - that could probably be saved just by cutting back on, say, public service advertising campaigns - CERN will stop operating all of its particle accelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider.
Venus saved Earth
The worst part is that most people don't care. Why accelerate invisible particles and make them collide, when problems in the tangible world are breaking out every day? Why pay people to solve 2000-year-old maths problems, when you have to square the budget? And why study the atmosphere of Venus, when the Earth's environment is dying?
There is a simple answer.
Take Venus as an example. Studying Venus falls under planetary research, something that seems totally useless to the majority of humans. Who cares about the atmosphere of Venus? I know I don't give a damn if there's chloride or Venusian farts up there. Thankfully, someone cared years ago and that pure and seemingly useless science saved all humans and our home planet from destruction, like Carl Sagan reminded us in Pale Blue Dot:
Who discovered that CFCs [Chlorofluorocarbons]posed a threat to the ozone layer? Was it the principal manufacturer, the DuPont Corporation, exercising corporate responsibility? Was it the Environmental Protection Agency protecting us? Was it the Department of defence defending us? No, it was two Ivory-tower, white-coated university scientists working on something else—Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California, Irvine. Not even an Ivy League university. No one instructed them to look for dangers to the environment. They were pursuing fundamental research. They were scientists following their own interests. Their names should be known to every schoolchild.
In their original calculations, Rowland and Molina used rate constants of chemical reactions involving chlorine and other halogens that had been measured in part with NASA support. Why NASA? Because Venus has chlorine and fluorine molecules in its atmosphere, and planetary aeronomers had wanted to understand what's happening there.
The study of Venus' atmosphere gave us the information that unlocked the deadly processes started on Earth by CFCs.
Identifying the dangers posed by CFCs - inert components that destroy the ozone layer that protects every living being on Earth - is just one of many examples described by Sagan. That discovery pushed governments around the world to stop CFC production at once.
OK, so you're sold; planetary research could prove useful. But what purpose does pure maths research serve? Or particle acceleration?
Maths is everywhere
Our computers, mobile phones and video games run thanks to millennia of pure mathematical research that on the surface had no practical implications. Yet they are the backbone of our industrial society. Esoteric fields like chaos theory research have direct effects on weather prediction. Everyone understands how a tornado can kill them. Nobody understands the maths that could predict the risk of a tornado happening given a set of circumstances.
Particle acceleration experiments, which are going to be canned at CERN, try to understand the inner world that exists inside all matter. Like astronomy, this field of study chases the questions that have puzzled humans since we started to understand the world around us. But beyond that amazing quest, this research will open the door to new energy developments that would eventually give us almost-free, limitless sources of energy.
And yet, European politicians are going to take away a mere $US135 millions over five years away from these scientists... after having already spent $US10 billion building the Large Hadron Collider. It makes no sense. These short-sighted, self-serving, power-hungry, poll-driven, lying money hogs can't understand that this research - and the research process itself - will have consequences that will change humanity forever. But instead of cutting some of the $US50 billion they will spend on bureaucracy over the next five years, they cut the science. Because, let's face it, those scientists are just crazy people in white coats.
How can a $US135 million budget cut save the economy?
Also in Pale Blue Dot, Sagan makes another interesting and obvious observation:
There are now other matters-clear, crying national needs-that cannot be addressed without major expenditures; at the same time, the discretionary federal budget has become painfully constrained. Disposal of chemical and radioactive poisons, energy efficiency, alternatives to fossil fuels, declining rates of technological innovation, the collapsing urban infrastructure, the AIDS epidemic, a witches' brew of cancers, homelessness, malnutrition, infant mortality, education, jobs, health care-there is a painfully long list. Ignoring them will endanger the well-being of the nation. A similar dilemma faces all the spacefaring nations
Nearly every one of these matters could cost hundreds of billions of dollars or more to address. Fixing infrastructure will cost several trillion dollars. Alternatives to the fossil-fuel economy clearly represent a multitrillion-dollar investment worldwide, if we can do it.
The 2011 US Federal Budget: Notice the proportions.
How can a $US135 million cut help to solve the problems that we have now? Is it really that important? Is cutting the money that goes into NASA going to solve the education problems of the US? What about the unemployment rate?
The effect of any cost cutting measures in the already weak budget for non-commercial science research is irrelevant. And yet, it's always the first thing that the Government, Congress, the Senate, the European Parliament and the parliaments of every Western democracy cut first. No forward thinking whatsoever. Just poll-driven measures. Like we say in Spain: "Bread for today, hunger for tomorrow."
I'm not advocating unlimited money for science - although just imagine what could be done if we allocated just a little bit more cash for pure research. But when NASA's 2011 budget is only 1.8 per cent of the total defence budget, when the rest of the sciences get even less than that, you know our priorities are truly fucked up.
The fact is that pure research moves the world forward, and its implications are always far reaching, even while they may not seem obvious at first sight. While practical research - a new mobile chip, a new car engine, a new display technology - gives direct benefits today, it is pure research that makes the practical side possible. Practical research is something better done by private companies, but pure science, the kind of science that will put humans on Mars, discover a method for practical fusion energy or eradicate cancer, needs of the support of all of us.
We need those crazy people in the white coats, and not supporting them may save some pennies today but will ruin us all tomorrow. [The Washington Post]