Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Deserving dollars: should mega budget science be funded in an age of austerity?

With the UK narrowly avoiding France's fate of a triple dip recession, I thought I would bite the bullet and examine some of the economics of current science. In a time when numerous nations are feeling severe effects due to the downturn, it is ironic that there are a multitude of science projects with budgets larger than the GDP of some smaller nations. So who funds these ventures and are they value for money, or even worthwhile, in these straitened times? Here are a few examples of current and upcoming projects, with the lesser known the project the more the information supplied:

National Ignition Facility

The world's most powerful laser was designed with a single goal: to generate net energy from nuclear fusion by creating temperatures and pressures similar to those in the cores of stars. However, to state that the NIF has not lived up to expectation would be something of an understatement. According to even the most conservative sources, the original budget of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory project has at the very least doubled if not quadrupled to over US$4 billion, whilst the scheduled operational date came five years overdue.

I first learned of the project some years ago thanks to a friend who knew one of the scientists involved. The vital statistics are astonishing, both for the scale of the facility and the energies involved. But it seems that there may be underlying problems with the technology. Over-reliance on computer simulations and denial of deleterious experimental results on precursor projects, as well as the vested interests of project staffers and the over-confident potential for military advances, have all been suggested as causes for what history may conclude as a white elephant. So perhaps if you are looking for an archetypal example of how non-scientific factors have crippled research, this may well be it.

Unlike all the other projects discussed, the National Ignition Facility is solely funded by one nation, the USA. Of course, it could be argued that four billion dollars is a bargain if the project succeeded, and that it is today's time-precious society that needs to learn patience in order to appreciate the long-term timescales required to overcome the immense technological challenges. Nuclear fusion would presumably solve many of todays - and the foreseeable futures - energy requirements whilst being rather more environmentally friendly than either fossil fuels or fission reactors. The potential rewards are plain for all to see.

However, the problems are deep-rooted, leading to arguments against the development of laser-based fusion per se. Alternative fusion projects such as the Joint European Torus and the $20 billion ITER - see an earlier post on nuclear fusion research for details - use longer-established methods. My verdict in a nutshell: the science was possibly unsound from the start and the money would be better spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, perhaps the facility could get back a small portion of its funding if Star Trek movies continue to hire the NIF as a filming location!

The International Space Station

I remember the late Carl Sagan arguing that the only benefit of the ISS that couldn’t be achieved via cheaper projects such as – during the Space Shuttle era - the European Space Agency’s Spacelab, was research into the deleterious effects on health of long-duration spaceflight. So at $2 billion per year to run is it worthwhile, or but another example of a fundamentally flawed project? After all, as it is the station includes such non-scientific facets as the ultimate tourist destination for multi-millionaires!

Sometimes referred to as a lifeline for American and Russian aerospace industries (or even a way to prevent disaffected scientists in the latter from working for rogue states), I have been unable to offer a persuasive argument as to why the money would not have been better spent elsewhere. It is true that there has been investigation into vaccines for salmonella and MRSA, but after twelve years of permanent crewing on board the station, just how value for money has this research been? After all, similar studies were carried out on Space Shuttle flights in previous few decades, suggesting that the ISS was not vital to these programmes. The Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees has described as it as a 'turkey in the sky', siphoning funds that could have been spent on a plethora of unmanned missions such as interplanetary probes. But as we should be aware, it usually isn't a case that money not spent on one project would automatically become available for projects elsewhere.

On a positive scientific note, the station has played host to the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - a key contender in the search for dark matter - which would presumably have difficulty finding a long-duration orbital platform elsewhere. But then this is hardly likely to excite those who want immediate, practical benefits from such huge expenditure.

The ISS has no doubt performed well as a test bed for examining the deterioration of the human body due to living in space, if anything seriously weakening the argument for a manned Mars mission in the near future. Perhaps one other area in which the station has excelled has been that of a focal point for promoting science to the public, but surely those who follow in Sagan’s footsteps - the U.K.'s Brian Cox for one - can front television series with a similar goal for the tiniest fraction of the cost?

The Large Hadron Collider

An amazing public-relations success story, considering how far removed the science and technology are from everyday mundanity, the world's largest particle accelerator requires $1 billion per year to operate on top of a construction budget of over $6 billion. With a staff of over 10,000 the facility is currently in the midst of a two-year upgrade, giving plenty of time for its international research community to analyse the results. After all, the Higgs Boson A.K.A. 'God particle' has been found…probably.

So if the results are confirmed, what next? Apparently, the facility can be re-engineered for a wide variety of purposes, varying from immediately pragmatic biomedical research on cancer and radiation exposure to the long-term search for dark matter. This combination of practical benefits with extended fundamental science appears to be as good a compromise as any compared to similar-scale projects. Whether similar research could be carried out by more specialised projects is unknown. Does anyone know?

As for the future of mega-budget schemes, there are various projects in development extending into the next decade. The Southern Hemisphere is playing host to two large international collaborations: the Square Kilometre Array is due to begin construction in eleven nations - excluding its UK headquarters - in 2016, but it will be around eight years before this $2 billion radio telescope array is fully operational. Meanwhile the equally unimaginatively-named European Extremely Large Telescope is planned for a site in Chile, with an even longer construction period and a price tag approaching $1.5 billion. Both projects are being designed for a variety of purposes, from dark matter investigation to searching for small (i.e. Earth-sized) extra-solar planets with biologically-modified atmospheres.

At this point it is pertinent to ask do extremely ambitious science projects have to come with equally impressive price tags? Personally I believe that with a bit more ingenuity a lot of useful research can be undertaken on far smaller budgets. Public participation in distributed computing projects such as Folding@home and Seti@home, in which raw data is processed by home computers, is about as modest an approach as feasible for such large amounts of information.

An example of a long-term project on a comparatively small budget is the US-based Earthscope programme, which collects and analyses data including eminently practical research into seismic detection. With a construction cost of about $200 million and annual budget around a mere $125 million this seems to be a relative bargain for a project that combines wide-scale, theoretical targets with short-term, pragmatic gains. But talking of practical goals, there are other scientific disciplines crying out for a large increase in funding. Will the explosive demise of a meteor above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk back in February act as a wake-up call for more research into locating and deflecting Earth-crossing asteroids and comets? After all, the 2014 NASA budget for asteroid detection projects is barely over the hundred million dollar mark!

I will admit to some unique advantages to enormous projects, such as the bringing together of researchers from the funding nations that may lead to fruitful collaboration. This is presumably due to the sheer number of scientists gathered together for long periods, as opposed to spending just a few days at an international conference or seminar, for instance. Even so, I cannot help but feel that the money for many of the largest scale projects could be bettered used elsewhere, solving some of the immediate problems facing our species and ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the countries involved offer their populations little in the way of voice as to how public money is spent on research. But then considering the appalling state of science education in so many nations, as well as the short shrift that popular culture usually gives to the discipline, perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all. If we want to make mega-budget projects more accountable, we will need to make fundamental changes to the status of science in society. Without increased understanding of the research involved, governments are unlikely to grant us choice.