Collider house rules

We have just experienced science's version of an astrological conjunction. The ten-year anniversary of the release of the first working draft of the human genome coincided with scientists at Cern's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announcing that data is now pouring out at an unprecedented rate. And almost simultaneously, the coalition government warned scientists that their funding is about to be put through the mincer.

So here's a question: you're in charge of science funding and there's not enough cash for both the LHC and the Human Genome Project. Which do you go for?

It's enough to make a scientist's heart sink: we want it all. But it is a useful exercise, because it reminds us of the essential point of science. The Human Genome Project sold itself on the medical and technological benefits it might bring. The LHC, on the other hand, doesn't really offer any immediate payback besides knowledge. So, which is better?

A knee-jerk reaction tells you it's the first - science should pay back in a tangible form. But not so fast. The real-world pay-off of the genome project has so far been disappointing. Craig Venter recently said that "there is still some way to go before this capability can have a significant effect on medicine and health". Francis Collins, who led the international genome sequencing project, has also conceded that the advantages have proved "modest". Ten years on, "It is fair to say that the Human Genome Project has not yet directly affected the health care of most individuals," he told Nature.

Many biologists were sceptical when the genome project idea was first raised. Dissenters are now thinner on the ground; biologists are glad we've done it. But it's not clear that, if they wound back the clock, they would do it again.

The LHC, on the other hand, has received almost unqualified support from physicists all the way. If they had to go back and do it all again, they would.

Somehow, the pursuit of knowledge doesn't disappoint. The LHC excites the imagination like nothing else in science. It is a time-machine that takes us back to discover our roots in the particles that existed shortly after the Big Bang. There have been no promises that will ring hollow in ten years; we may not learn from it what we thought we would - but we will learn something, and it will be inspiring.

Tangible gain, such as the sort promised by the genome project, is much more elusive. So here's the lesson. This is the dawning of the age
of austerity, and science needs to stick to what it does best - gathering knowledge. The spin-off technologies and other benefits will come. So there's my answer. I choose the LHC.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask