• Question: Why is money being spent on making technology for research that is not essential to human life when there are millions of people dying of drought, famine and disease around the world who could really do with medicine, food and water but aren't being given what we take for granted?

    Asked by JazzTea to Stewart, Miriam, Marton, Laura, Kathryn, David on 13 Nov 2018.
    • Photo: David Ho

      David Ho answered on 13 Nov 2018:

      This is a brilliant question. Some people think that we shouldn’t spend money on science that doesn’t directly help people, and they make some very valid points. But I’ll say a few things about why it’s not such a simple decision.

      One thing is that everybody has different skills and scientists have different specialisms. If somebody’s spent their entire lives studying, for example, semiconductors, they won’t be so much use if you tell them “you’ve got to research world hunger now”.

      Another thing to remember is that while research might not directly benefit people, pursuing scientific research has led to some truly amazing discoveries that have many uses beyond what they were originally designed for. For example, scientists doing particle physics experiments needed a way to handle their data, so they invented a system that eventually became the “World Wide Web”, which has helped billions of people today. Another example from particle physics is PET scans, which use technology from particle colliders to help image tumours.

    • Photo: Stewart Martin-Haugh

      Stewart Martin-Haugh answered on 13 Nov 2018:

      Good question!

      Firstly, let’s look at the money:

      The UK spends about twice as much on international aid (£14 billion) as it does on all areas of scientific research. Research like particle physics is about £0.7 billion, so it’s a small amount of that. So overall more money is being spent (at least in the UK) on aid rather than on research.

      Still, just because it’s less money than the aid budget doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t worry about how much it costs. There are maybe 3 things that go into thinking about this:

      1)Technology for particle physics often pushes the boundaries of what’s available. In the past this has led to e.g. the World Wide Web, detectors used in medicine, cancer treatment etc. There’s no guarantee it will work in the future, but it seems reasonable to keep funding it at some level in case you get these improvements again.

      2)People are often inspired to go into science by these big scientific projects. In most cases they will end up doing something different, but using their science skills. Some former particle physicists also use their skills in areas like climate change and medical science.

      3)There are lots of tensions between different countries, so it’s often useful for them to be able to collaborate on neutral, peaceful projects like CERN. It’s a kind of scientific diplomacy.

      Of course, you have to balance all of these – I think a certain amount of spending on pure science like particle physics is good, but there should be much more spending on the important areas you mention.

    • Photo: Miriam Hogg

      Miriam Hogg answered on 13 Nov 2018:

      This is a very good question.
      We do have many researchers in technology, environment and medicine already, but not every researcher is interested or has skills in this area. Historically we have often found new ways to do things and new technologies by looking into something else.

      For example: the man who discovered x-rays was playing with a cathode ray tube (which just shot electrons through a vacuum and hit another object) and found out that a near-by material started glowing, he experimented with this new radiation and found out they could be used to look at bones. This technology ended up being used by medicine but he was originally looking at this for industrial use.

      Also the Hubble space telescope was sent up to look at stars but when it started one of its mirrors was misaligned, the scientists had to find a way to improve the pictures to get rid of the damage created by that mirror. The code was then employed by medical scientists to do better imaging on certain cancers!

      Sometimes we are looking at something completely different and find an answer to another problem. So its definitely important to fund research that appears non-essential.

      In terms of my research, I am looking at space which is not essential to human life. But I have learned many skills in modelling which can be used in modelling the environment (ie, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, epidemics, wind) If I hadn’t researched space I would never have learned the modelling skills that I hope to use in the future in environmental research!!