“The Higgs boson – a mad idea that at first glance seems to have no basis in reality, but wins a Nobel prize almost 50 years later. To realise the idea is correct and Nobel noteworthy requires worldwide investment in generations of powerful experiments that push the boundaries of technology almost to breaking point. It’s an expensive and esoteric pursuit. Is it worth the money?
This question was the crux of this month’s Science and Society lecture at the University of Liverpool. Professor John Wormesley, the CEO of the research council that funds particle physics research, gave us his view. You, undoubtedly, have your view too.
Is it worth it?
The Higgs boson was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider, a facility which cost an estimated 3.7 billion pounds to construct. It uses approximately the same amount of electricity as the neighbouring city of Geneva, and runs up an annual bill of around £19M. This cost is met by the CERN member state subscriptions. The UK is a member state. We pay, thanks to your taxes, 100 million pounds a year for the privilege. More money goes on paying the researchers and students who perform the data analysis to make the discovery. Is it worth it?
To answer this, we need to pinpoint what makes science “worth it”, and this is hard to do. If you’re a scientist like me, the end result can be worth it by itself.
That journey of discovery too can be inspirational, as an illustration that there are larger, more important things beyond our everyday concerns. Robert Wilson, called to justify the cost of a huge particle accelerator at Fermi National Laboratory to Congress in 1969, responded that it had no value in terms of national security. Rather, its value was to make the country worth defending. That spirit pervaded the space race to the Moon landing. It lives on as students choose to study science because the “big questions” – why are we here? What makes the universe behave like this? – attract them like magnets.
Does this make basic science worth it? There aren’t many studies which translate a scientifically literate workforce into cash equivalent. A study from Fermi National Laboratory suggests that the most recent accelerator, the Tevatron, paid back investment tenfold. This was quanitified in terms of the value of trained PhD students to industry, and the value to the computing and superconducting magnet industries of the Tevatron R&D that pushed their boundaries of what was possible at industrial scales forward.
MRI scanners in hospitals, for example, employ the same superconducting magnet technology that the Large Hadron Collider uses. In fact they are mini particle accelerators themselves, and use a particular type of cable developed at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for particle physics facilities. Closer to home, consider the World Wide Web, invented at CERN to share information between particle physicists but which has now changed the face of commerce and our access to information.
There are many other, smaller scale examples of this technology transfer too. Even the precise silicon particle detectors we built here at Liverpool for the LHCb experiment have found an unexpected use at Clatterbridge oncology centre, as a way to image and monitor the proton beam used in cancer therapy.
This is what basic science can do for us. It can open up new possibilities and revolutionise our life and work. It’s so hard to quantify a numerical payback or value to the economy of these inventions. They are huge, and they wouldn’t happen without the needs of basic science research trying new, crazy ways to push the boundaries of what is currently possible.
So how much is the Higgs discovery worth to you? Is it worth the three or four pounds a year your taxes contribute to make that research possible? I think so. I think that might even be a bargain.”