Politics of proton smashing

The UK taxpayer has contributed around £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider.

In a world of unlimited budgets, funding for the lavishly expensive Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN would be easy to justify. This justification is harder to sustain in our world of competing priorities. But honest debate about the politics and economics of CERN is not helped by a complaisant, nonsense-talking media, and nor is it helped by the wilful obfuscations of some of CERN’s defenders.

It would be churlish to deny that there is something intensely, if geekily, exciting about the activities of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). The idea of accelerating sub-atomic particles to almost the speed of light, and smashing them into each other deep under the French and Swiss countryside, has a Bond-villain grandeur that has manifestly caught the public imagination. If this leads to more genuine interest in science, and inspires more children to study physics at school, then this can surely only be a good thing.

But the money being poured into CERN is almost as mind-boggling as the velocities being achieved inside its new super-collider. The entire CERN budget is some $1bn per year, with the UK picking up over a sixth of the total. The UK taxpayer has contributed something of the order of £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider. So, the question is, do we get the right kind of bang for our bucks?

The answer to this question is rather mixed. On the one hand, elementary particle physics has long been at an impasse, as increasingly sophisticated theoretical elaborations of the ‘standard model’ of the four basic physical forces flounder through lack of the right kind of experimental data. Only by building the LHC could particle physics be pushed forward, and recent theoretical work be given its long-needed experimental test.

Without the LHC, fundamental particle physics would have hit the buffers, with increasingly abstruse theoretical work floating free of the possibility of empirical confirmation. An important part of physics would have been in deep, existential trouble without the LHC.

So, if we want to satisfy the basic human curiosity about how the world works then, sooner or later, the LHC – or something like it – would have to be built. The question, though, is whether this really was the time to do it, and whether its very generous funding could have been better deployed elsewhere. The answer to this question is also important for how we should think about future funding of projects like this one.

A very basic line of argument would suggest that CERN’s budget could be better spent on the more basic functions of liberal democratic states – health, education, environmental policy, and the like. At the extreme, one could take the view that this kind of pure scientific research is simply not the role of government. But the case for diverting the LHC budget elsewhere does not have to be made in Philistine terms, or by questioning the value of scientific research. To be anti-LHC need not mean being ‘anti-science’. Instead, we may just think that we should be concentrating on alternative scientific priorities.

Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has recently argued that scientific research priorities should be redirected more pressing problems like climate change. The discovery of the Higgs boson won’t be much good to anyone if the planet has become too hot for human habitation; and it is especially difficult to justify the prioritisation of particle physics to the global poor who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Moreover, it is clear that there are much better returns, in terms of discoveries per unit of expenditure, to research in other areas of science, as opposed to CERN-type particle physics which, by its very nature – involving enormously complex machinery and massive energy outlays – is very expensive. Fields like genomics and bioinformatics are accelerating at a breakneck pace right now, in sharp distinction to the near-exhaustion of particle physics. And so it is hard to deny that there are other areas of science where research is both closer to practical human concerns, and where the scientific returns to investment are greater.

Even within the scope of physics itself, it is not clear that putting so much emphasis on funding the LHC makes good scientific sense. As disproportionate amounts of UK Physics funding are poured into CERN, more fertile areas of the subject such as condensed matter physics, biophysics and nanotechnology are being sidelined.

It is a significant fact that, as the UK has diverted physics funding increasingly towards particle physics, other parts of the subject have suffered. Despite comparatively high levels of funding, no UK-based physicist has won a Nobel Prize in Physics since Nevill Mott in 1977. (Anthony Leggett won in 2003, but he has worked at the University of Illinois for the past 25 years.) This compares very unfavourably with UK successes in Medicine, with more than a dozen UK Nobel laureates over the same period. As UK Physics funding pours into particle physics, more fertile and fast-moving areas of the subject have come to be dominated by the US and Germany.

So, putting the LHC first may not even be good for physics, let alone for scientific research in general. But one would not have the first inkling of this from the supine, hyperbolic and excitable coverage that the LHC’s launch has received from the British media.

There was an enormous amount of brouhaha in the British media on the 10 September “launch date” of the LHC, even though all that had happened was that a beam of protons had been sent in one direction around the LHC. Nothing had been collided, and so no collisions could yet have been detected. Yet the media coverage suggested that some kind of breakthrough had already taken place.

The media has nonsensically christened the LHC “the Big Bang machine” and the Higgs boson is bizarrely called “the God particle”. Neither term really means anything at all. We are told that the LHC will “discover the origins of the Universe” when all it can aim to do is to recreate conditions from the very early Universe, which is a completely different idea. We are told that the physicists “have no idea what they might find” when, in fact, they are looking for very specific results given a well-worked out background theory that stands in need of empirical confirmation.

Strangest of all, the LHC is heralded as having spin-off effects from finding cures to cancer to solving global warming, as if these – rather than raw scientific curiosity – were its real justification. But if we’re really interested in these sorts of applications of scientific research, there are likely to be more efficient ways of getting to them than hunting the Higgs boson.

Something very odd seems to have happened. The media would rather talk excited gibberish about the LHC than ask hard questions about support for science in a democratic society, or the proper priorities for research in physics. The CERN scientists are happy to meet the media’s demand for hyperbole, as it obscures the most important questions about funding for CERN.

This should not sound too negative. The LHC is a magnificent human achievement, a great feat of collaboration and logistics, and it will surely bring fascinating scientific advances. But, in a sane democratic society, the media and the scientists themselves need to do a better job about talking sensibly about its purpose, goals and justification.

Most importantly, given the competing demands for our tax pounds – from other areas of science as well as from broader social goals – we need to think long and hard about our priorities. My tentative suggestion is that, at least for the time being, and given the plethora of real problems humanity is facing, the LHC should be as far as we go for a generation or two in funding particle physics.

Human ingenuity will get us to the deepest foundations of particle physics eventually, but we may collectively have other more important things to do before we get there.