[SCMP Column] High Price of Big Scientific Research

October 03, 2016

What price big science? Can we really justify the billions spent on what for most humans will always be extremely esoteric issues – especially when a climate crisis faces us, when health and education budgets and other government services are being cut, and millions in developing countries lack electricity and clean water, and lose their homes and even their lives every year in natural disasters that could be mitigated by better-built houses and stronger infrastructure?
At the risk of inviting the withering contempt and animated challenges from scientists, dreamers and visionaries from across our community, I would argue that much more down-to-earth attention needs to be paid to this question than it currently gets.

For the generously tax-payer-funded marketing arms of the 60,000-strong NASA or the European Space Agency, or the builders of China’s supercollider, which would if approved cost US$21bn in today’s dollars by the time it is working in 2050, my question is perhaps an outrage – a matter of “flat-earth” idiocy. A small price to pay, they say, to split an atom at fantastically high speed that will tell us lots about the origins of the universe.

A number of serendipitously converging events over the past week forced these awkward questions on me – first, but not foremost the debate on the Mainland over the supercollider. Then on Friday, the European Space Agency’s €1.4bn 12-year Rosetta mission came to a dramatic end as the spacecraft deliberately committed suicide by crashing into the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which it has been orbiting for the past two years. The mission was without question a technical miracle – six times round the sun before eventually arriving alongside the hip-bone shaped runt of a comet for two years of data analysis and photography.

The Rosetta mission is at the cheap “firesale” end of space research.  NASA’s Space Shuttle programme, which involved 135 missions between 1972 and 2011, cost an estimated US$196bn. The International Space Station, which has been operating since 1985, has cost $160bn and is claimed to be the most expensive thing ever built. Hubble – perhaps the most impressive telescope and camera ever built – will have cost $14bn by the time it falls out of service in 2021.

It is undeniable that a lot of good stuff has come from such ambitious and visionary activity. We would never have developed GPS, for example. But the value of many scientific projects is often ludicrously overstated. How many times have we been told that such and such a multi-billion dollar project will make an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the origin of the universe, or the origins of life on earth.

Take the recent example of Russian billionaire philanthropist Yuri Milner’s “Breakthrough Starshot” – intended to use massive arrays of ytterbium lasers to shoot one-gram-sized wafer-like space craft with one-metre “sails” at a quarter the speed of light – reaching our nearest neighbouring star, Alpha Centauri, in a mere 20 years. First problem, the technology is not yet even in place. Second problem, if you wanted to shoot a 100-tonne spacecraft this way, with or without astronauts on board, it would need a sail 8.5km wide (yes, kilometers). Third, once it is travelling at a quarter the speed of light, there is no way of applying brakes. The fly-by of Alpha Centauri would enable us to gather a few snapshots, and that is about it. Yuri Milner is putting $100m into initial research on the project, which if it went ahead, even with one-gram payloads, would cost in excess of $10bn per launch.

Then take Elon Musk’s SpaceX fantasy to establish a colony on Mars at a cost of $10bn per person. I understand we already have schoolkids queuing up to join the maiden flight. Quite what their parents think about the idea I dare not think. Absent what the Financial Times called “the inchoate desire to slip earth’s “surly bonds”” to make mankind a multi-planet species, or a blinding but not implausible conviction that humans are on course to destroy themselves and the earth in the coming centuries, it is terribly hard to see such a colonizing mission making any sense. As the FT noted: “Manned space flight remains a grossly extravagant endeavour on any rational valuation of the scientific benefits.”

These last two scientific endeavours must surely be candidates for an Ig-Nobel Prize, with this ignominious list released only last week in Harvard. As with the Ig Nobels, they surely amuse, but make us think. Like this year’s Ig Nobel Reproduction prize – to Egyptian Ahmed Shafik for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton or wool trousers on the sex life of rats - or the Economics Prize to a New Zealand team which assessed the perceived personalities of rocks – or my personal favourite, the Peace Prize to a Canadian team that studied “The Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”.

There is of course a single huge difference between such baffling and bemusing Ig Nobels, and the grand scientific visions of Elon Musk, Yuri Milner, or NASA: their big scientific ideas tend to cost big billions of dollars, and tend to involve even bigger overspends. They involve big lobbying, and ought at the same time to attract big cost-benefit analysis exercises. Mercifully, despite the intense lobbying, such cost-benefit exercises do sometimes result in brakes being applied. President Obama aroused the ire of the US science community by killing the $230bn Constellation project to create a human colony on the moon and send astronauts to Mars.

As NASA lobbyists are apt to remind us, such spending amounts to just a few dollars per capita per year, and pales in comparison with the $3 trillion or so spent fighting a questionable war in Iraq. But I would prefer to see significant billions drawn from this budget and spent on our more earthly challenges. I would even spare the few thousands of dollars needed for the Japanese winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Perception Prize – investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them from between your legs. Maybe that is the main difference between Elon Musk and me.
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