Should money for scientific research be diverted to a humanitarian cause?

I was discussing science and religion with a family member last night, and our conversation drifted to the Large Hadron Collider. This family member, whom I love dearly, mentioned that they thought the LHC costs entirely too much and that the money would be so much better used for humanitarian purposes. I replied that defense spending could be cut; the military-industrial complex should be the first thing to lose funds, not a scientific endeavor. My family member pressed that because this was unlikely to happen, the money to fund CERN should still be used to help Haiti instead.

I still stood firm in my conviction that scientific spending is in no way to blame for a lack of humanitarian relief funds, and that cutting research funds would be the most backward step to take. But is there something here? If defense spending was eradicated and there was still a need for disaster relief funds, should money be diverted from scientific research to a humanitarian cause? Should human welfare trump our quest for knowledge? Or ultimately, is human welfare the goal of our quest for knowledge?

Tags: humanitarian, lhc, money, research

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Thanks, Johnny! :)
Some very good points have been made already showing why this is a false dilemma:

- We waste a lot of money on things like the military and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are as far from a humanitarian cause as you can get).
- Basic science research is not mutually exclusive from humanitarian causes. In fact, as argued already, it is a humanitarian cause.
- Science research is not as expensive as people think (as evidenced by The Human Genome Project example).

I want to elaborate on the last point first, but I want to focus particularly on the LHC (and CERN in general), since it seems that CERN is invoked every time in relation to the 'humanitarian causes vs science research' false dilemma. I'll then give you the argument that should win this 'debate' every time ;)


The cost of running CERN needs to be put into the context of other government spending. The LHC project cost is around 6 billion euros (so far). However, this is a project that started 15 years ago, in 1995. Thus, on average, the LHC has cost about 400 million euros a year. Of course, the LHC is not the only CERN project, so maybe we should be looking at the total cost of operating the lab (including the salaries of the 2 500 employees). Annual contribution from member states is ~750 million euros, plus whatever the 8 'associate' and temp members contribute. Can't find those numbers, so let's assume it's about 50% on top of that: CERN then costs ~1 billion euros a year.

If you think this is a lot of money, you need to consider that it's a small fraction of the GDP (260 billion) of one of CERN's poorest members, Greece. Moreover, this money is divided among the 20 full member states, the 8 'observer status' states and int'l organizations, as well as many non-member states with co-operation agreements (see here for details). Each member's contribution is proportional to its GDP (more or less...). As an example, my native Greece pays ~13 million euros a year, or 0.005% of the country's GDP (compare this to the 9 billion -or 3.5% of GDP- that Greece spends on the military!). No one can seriously argue that this is a lot of money.

If you're still not convinced, consider that the cost of the Iraq war is ~100 billion euros a year (according to Stiglitz): If we were to divert 6% of the money spent annually in Iraq, we could build another LHC every year (or at least start bulding one ;) )!


DocReason's tip on how to convince people CERN is worth funding!

I'll play devil's advocate first:
So, what does the world get for this 1 billion euros a year? The Higgs? Perhaps. Multiple universes, String Theory? Could be. But frankly, apart from physicists and science enthusiasts, who cares about these? Most probably, we will not see any practical benefits during our lifetimes from any new physics discoveries. Even I don't really care, and I work there!

Paradoxically, CERN's greatest contribution to humanity (so far) was never one of its main goals. I'm talking about the World Wide Web (WWW), of course. The military may have invented the internet back in the 60s, but the real revolution happened 3 decades later when a CERN employee (Tim Berners-Lee) came up with the Web. His initial goal was to enable remote information exchange between collaborating scientists. The CERN people back then had the incredible foresight to "give" it to the world for free, which is why it is now an affordable reality for almost the entire world. Had it been a private (for-profit) company that came up with this, they would want to profit from exclusivity and we would probably not have the internet as we know it today.

CERN (and particle physics in general) has also made other obvious contributions which are in use today (e.g. MRI imaging, cancer therapy, etc.), but the benefits of the WWW are obvious to virtually anyone. The greater point here is that the benefits of funding basic research are not necessarily known in advance. Even if the main goals of the endeavor are not immediately applicable, the learning process itself gives rise to indirect benefits in the form of new technologies that can be spun off for the greater good of humanity. In CERN's case, the Web alone can justify its funding.

So, next time someone tells you that spending 6 billion euros on the LHC is a 'waste', ask them if they use the internet, and have them think about what their lives would be without it. Once they're convinced, you can also elaborate on the other arguments.


Other Remarks

I find it quite sad that people are unable to make the connection between the long-term knowledge gained from basic scientific research and the technologies they use every day. Claude Shannon set the grounds for today's 'digital revolution' as far back as the 30s and 40s, even if he had no products in mind, and no idea that digital communications would be so important today. Yet every communication device we use today (phones, satellites, DSL, etc.) exists thanks (initially) to his research. Similar arguments can be made for physics and other sciences. Knowledge of quantum mechanics gave rise to the modern electronics we use every day. Yet it has been around for well over 100 years, and initially was seemingly as obscure as the new theories being explored by particle physicists today.

It's important to note here that basic research funding is crucial, because it enables exploration of theories that have no immediate commercial value. In a world dominated by free market ideology, company executives are unwilling to invest in research that won't immediately yield competetive advantage (there are exceptions, of course). They don't care about future generations or humanity in general; profit must be made within their lifetimes (actually, even a lot less than that). The reality is that much of today's technologies exists thanks to basic research as well, not just free-market competition (though I'm not discounting the contribution of the latter).

I'm also saddened that people will so easily accept that military spending is impossible to cut. Why don't they think the same about scientific research? It seems so arbitrary (and wrong) to me. If you think your government will never cut military spending (even in the face of popular dissent), then you probably have more important things to worry about than "excessive" science funding... Plus, there's no symmetry here: As I already pointed out, the cost of the LHC per year is 0.4% that of the cost of Iraq. I hope we can start to change this mentality.


I could go on forever on this subject, so I should probably end my rant here :)
I will answer with a quote from Carl Sagan in his excellent book. The Demon Haunted World:
" Scientific research is the seed corn to scientific discovery."
I remember Ronald Reagan's insane statement that tax money should not be spent on " intellectual curiosity ".
Without scientific research, humans are doomed...
I will answer with a quote from Carl Sagan in his excellent book. The Demon Haunted World:
" Scientific research is the seed corn to scientific discovery."


Such a good book! I read it a few weeks after I originally posted this thread, and I wished that I had had that argument as a rebuttal. It really is one of the greatest arguments in favor of funding scientific research.
Great points, Doc! I especially appreciate the break-down of the actual cost of creating and running the LHC. Really, it is a pittance when compared to the money that is thrwn at military endeavors.

I also really like the point you raise about the benefits gained from the unintended discoveries of scientific research. Although the World Wide Web was never an intended product of LHC research, it is inarguably one of the most valuable--if not the absolute most valuable--innovations of the modern times. We never really know what direction our increased knowledge will lead us in, and history is littered with unintentional discoveries that have yielded great benefits.
I would add something, but it seems that some things I have thought about (and much more) has already been stated in this thread.

So I want to say thanks to DocReason for his valuable insight, which will likely aid me in discussion with others about similar affairs and also...

Carl Sagan ROCKS!
I think all the points I could have wished to make have already been made, but I would just like to add that I am really happy to have stumbled upon this discussion since I had to endure a rant from my stepmother about exactly the same thing.
I mentioned NASA's intentions to place robotic astronauts on the Moon one day "to test out the engineering logistics of long-term lunar (or even Martian) occupation, giving future astronauts a better sense of the challenges faced in building extraterrestrial constructions. The more advanced manipulator arms would also open up opportunities for more sophisticated scientific experiments than those afforded by more basic rovers."
That to me is an enormous endeavour with obvious benefits to our entire planet, but she went off at me about how there are people dying all over Africa from malaria and Aids and people are just wasting their money on gimmicks like this. As South Africans this is obviously a sore issue for both of us, but I still leaned towards scientific advancement. She is also the type of Christian who bases her decision on the truth of Evolution on belief, so I tend to take things she says with a pinch of salt. As it's already been stated several times: science and humanitarianism are not mutually exclusive. To financially support one does not rule out the support of the other, and to continue to support science leads to the technological and practical support of humanitarian efforts all over the world in the fields of health, agriculture, infrastructure etc.
Just my 2c. Thanks for the excellent discussion.
It really makes me sad when people see scientific exploration as some sort of gimmick. I think that is exactly what my family member was aiming at, too. :(

On a sidenote, how cool is the term "robotic astronaut?!" I love that and I totally want one!
Of COURSE not! Remind your dear family member that the money is NOT burned or dissolved or sent into space...it goes to pay salaries which buy groceries and pay living expenses for thousands of families. Besides, we never know what serendipitous discovery may come from any scientific venture!
Besides, we never know what serendipitous discovery may come from any scientific venture!

Exactly. I remember somewhere in Cosmos, Carl Sagan does an excellent segment on the wealth of scientific milestones that have been derived from seemingly frivolous experiments. The one that stuck in my head was faux-mocking a Polish woman who wanted money to study potatoes or something; in reality, the experimenter was Marie Curie and the landmark discovery was pertaining to radiation. (I may have bungled those details, but the point remains.)
Very well said. :)
I think that is a false argument. Science leads to many more effective benefits for humanity than standard humanitarian aid does. Because of this I see investment in scientific research as intelligent investment in humanitarian causes. Give a man a fish etc.
But it seems everyone has covered this perfectly well already. :D

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