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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.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror