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Education Government The Almighty Buck Science

The Crisis of Government-Funded Science 194

eldavojohn writes "The New York Review of Books has an article penned by Steven Weinberg lamenting the future of physics, cosmology and this era of 'big science' in which we find ourselves. A quote from Goldhaber sums up the problem nicely, 'The first to disintegrate a nucleus was Rutherford, and there is a picture of him holding the apparatus in his lap. I then always remember the later picture when one of the famous cyclotrons was built at Berkeley, and all of the people were sitting in the lap of the cyclotron.' The article is lengthy with a history of big physics projects (most painfully perhaps the SSC) but Weinberg's message ultimately comes across as pessimism laced with fatalism — easily understandable given his experiences with government funding. Unfortunately he notes, 'Big science has the special problem that it can't easily be scaled down. It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle.' Apparently this article mirrors his talk given in January at the American Astronomical Society. If not our government, will anyone fund these immense projects or will physics slowly grind to a halt due to fiscal constraints?"
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The Crisis of Government-Funded Science

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  • From the second page of the article:

    We saw recently how a project to build a laboratory for the development of controlled thermonuclear power, ITER, was nearly killed by the competition between France and Japan to be the laboratory’s site.

    Also, put another way in the article:

    What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents. Big laboratories bring jobs and money into their neighborhood, so they attract the active support of legislators from that state, and apathy or hostility from many other members of Congress. Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two. He wasn’t far wrong. We saw several members of Congress change their stand on the SSC after their states were eliminated as possible sites.

    I think the counter argument to your idea of 'pooling' resources is that this isn't really necessary. We have the resources to do this as the United States or as the EU or probably even as China itself. I don't care what country/countries/bordered region does it, I just care that it gets done. It is, however, very easy to point out that the country that Weinberg is residing in has the resources to do it yet fails to do it. Even when bills are passed to fund it, it fails.

    Even as the SSC's cost ballooned up from $4 billion it only hit $12 billion in 1993 or about $19 billion in today's money. US defense budget for 1993 was ~$350 billion but it appears that we can't rely on the military to progress particle physics any further.

  • by KDEnut ( 1673932 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:00AM (#39770425)
    Asmov went on a small rant on this very subject years ago in a short novelette called The Dead Past. []
  • by dlenmn ( 145080 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:02AM (#39770449)

    Many of the big experiments (LHC, ITER, etc.) are already funded by many countries. Steven Weinberg is a US Citizen, so he deals with his government. Other scientists complain about their governments. It wouldn't make sense to do it the other way around. No one thinks the US should be solely funding all the experiments.

  • Not just in US (Score:4, Informative)

    by PiMuNu ( 865592 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:17AM (#39770581)

    I recently gave a similar talk to the UK Institute of Physics conference on High Energy Physics. The fact is that particle physics costs too much. The problem, in my view, is generated by particle physicists. We have underinvested in the basic technology of accelerator-driven HEP, namely superconducting magnets and to a lesser extent high gradient RF cavities. This underinvestment has lasted for several decades.

    For example, there are a bunch of folks working on HTS (High Temperature Superconductors) in the US with the potential to increase magnet field strengths by an order of magnitude - and hence particle accelerator fields by an order of magnitude. But the program is poorly funded if at all. In Europe, there are similar programs but they are disjoint (as so many things in Europe) between different countries.

    Sadly, the SSC and LHC were both disastrous in this respect. They basically bankrupted the HEP community. Now the US is more-or-less withdrawing from HEP and European accelerator driven HEP seems to have nowhere to go after LHC.

    The impact to HEP community is clear, but what about the impact to society? Where will we be in a world where we no longer have the capability to push back the fundamental frontiers of knowledge. Is that it?

  • by tqk ( 413719 ) <> on Monday April 23, 2012 @11:10AM (#39771213)

    Pity they failed this time (if only perhaps in the choice of Steven Weinberg).

    You would expect that a physicist would know what's been going on in astronomy, yes? Almost all of the big telescopes for at least the last twenty years that I've been watching have been multinational efforts. Mauna Kea [], Chile [], ... Lots of countries chip in if only for the right to get their researchers into the game.

    And now, I think it's time I fired up "Contact" again. :-)

May Euell Gibbons eat your only copy of the manual!