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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Funding the fundamental research: how to play escape games

I had the wonderful opportunity today to show some journalists the ALICE detector, and talk to them about what the experiment is all about. I was falling over my words somewhat once the camera was on me (it can be a little nerve-wracking!), so I can only hope I was still clear. I really enjoyed doing it, and I hope to get the opportunity again, to improve, and to spread the word to even more people. I will post again about this as soon as the documentary is available.

Something came up in the interview that I really feel quite strongly about. “So, tell me, what is the practical application for all this?” It might seem a little controversial as something to be confessing to the general public but I found myself being entirely honest. Yes, the world wide web came out of CERN, and fantastic developments in technology have fallen out of particle physics, including particle accelerators in medical physics. And yes, these developments continue to happen – look at the GRID for example. However, I don’t know who I speak for on this, but I don’t think I am alone in saying, “All these advances are great, but they are not what I am interested in.” What I wanted to put over was what really motivates me, what motivates scientists to work together on huge projects such as this. The driving force is simple curiosity. A need to understand the unusual behaviour of the world around us.

What I want to do in this blog is try to explain why, in the face of the economic climate, the aftermath of the STFC funding crisis and the inevitable forthcoming of “prioritisation”, governments should continue to fund these experiments despite what I just said. The fact is, these spin-off applications are inevitable. We are finding out more about our world, and in trying to do so, developing ways to make this easier. In doing this we arm ourselves with tools to solve all kinds of problems. Just look at history. The biggest advances, the most radical developments, fall from basic research. It seems that fundamental science has a more powerful force behind it than even the most worthy of application-based motivators: curiosity.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe it is fair for particle physicists to just say to the average taxpayer, “This is going to be worth the money – look at the world-wide-web.” The problem is that to argue the experiment’s worth from that angle you need to be able to tell a person what the next big world-changing development is going to be. We can’t do that. It also implies that the world-wide-web was intended to make such a huge impact on the world. In fact, it was developed to connect DESY and CERN, to aid fundamental research. There are huge issues for the future of our world that need huge solutions, and to be seen as a priority to the government it seems pure scientists need to somehow explain how their work is going to resolve these problems. Applied science is in just as much danger when radical changes don’t happen within a small amount of time. The trouble is, we need both. This is true for all fields of science, not just physics.

To explain, I am going to use the analogy of online escape-games. Let us consider one of the biggest problem our planet faces – for example, finding a clean, safe, economically viable, reliable and plentiful energy source. Now let us imagine that solving this problem is equivalent to escaping from the room. Typically at the start of these games you have something like, a key that does not fit in the keyhole of the locked door, a blank piece of paper, a table with nothing on it – seemingly useless tools. You have two choices at this point. You can either keep trying the key in the door over and over to no avail, or you can try to make an aimless search for new tools.

This is where fundamental science comes in. When what we know about the world is not enough to help us, it is not always clear where to look for new information. Items crop up in the most unusual of places – you just have to go at it with the perspective, “I wonder what is over there”. Even once you have what you need, it isn’t clear that this is true. In the same way, the usefulness of a new scientific discovery is not always immediately apparent. Why? Because it was not found with an application in mind. It was found because pure scientists went looking out of curiosity.

The next step is to be clever about what you have in front of you and see if it can be used. How can this spanner and the lighter be used? Where will the rope come in handy? This is where applied science becomes useful – innovative minds come along and recognise the potential in the tools that have been found, the information that has been uncovered, and tunes, refines and improves these things for a practical purpose. However, this becomes hopeless if all the tools are not available, or we don’t know something crucial that could help. This is because it is impossible to know what it is until you have it.

With the recent announcement of Austria’s intended withdrawal from CERN membership to redistribute funding because of the economic crisis, (and the subsequent protesting by the physicists involved), it doesn’t look good for particle physics. When I finish my PhD and return to the UK, I am not sure there will be any relevant jobs waiting for me. It isn’t just in particle physics either. My boyfriend works at Birmingham University, in Hydrogen storage. Here, the science is unusual as it is still fundamental, making previously unseen measurements (solving structures and investigating properties of potential candidates for fuel cells), but it is rather usefully targeted – its usefulness is obvious. Unfortunately even something like this, which clearly has huge potential, is in danger in the current climate, as the US have already made huge cuts in their hydrogen storage programme.

If we already have all the tools and information we need to solve the world’s big problems, then by all means, seeing fundamental research as a lower priority is acceptable in times of an economic crisis.  In reality, we all know that this is not true.

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