Natural Vs. Physical Science Research Points Up Regeneration Added-Value

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Science Laboratory with computers Are the Natural and Physical Sciences squaring up for inter-disciplinary combat? Each requires huge sums of money to maintain research momentum, but who decides what research offers best value? How can we measure Particle Physics 'against' say, environmental technologies? With their vast 'pure research' budgets to secure, perhaps the Physicists will now also discover that evaluating research investment regenerational impacts supports their case.

The rumblings of dissent between the physical and natural scientists are getting louder. There is a view abroad that investment in areas like Particle and Theoretical Physics is too expensive, when we need urgently to develop sustainable, 'One Planet Living' technologies.

Applied or fundamental research?
Today's Guardian newspaper (6 September '08) has an article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - a facility (apparatus or laboratory) in Geneva which will cost £5bn over the next 20 years - which adds substance to these rumblings. Prof. Sir David King, previously the UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, argues that 'big' money for scientific research is best spent encouraging top scientists to address climate change and related environmental issues; Britain has so far contributed about £500m to the LHC.

The Physicists however argue that thus far we know about only 5% of what constitutes the universe; we cannot stop exploration of the fundamental nature of matter.

Valid views
Both perspectives are valid. But which will hold sway?

The environmental research argument is compelling to people who know little about science, as well as many (often including natural scientists who feel short of funding) who do. The fundamental, 'science for the sake of knowledge' position is also persuasive, but perhaps only really to those who already perceive the deep intellectual challenges of exploring the nature of matter.

Political decisions
It was probably alright to leave science decisions to the scientists a century ago, when the Haldane Principle decreed that political involvement in research decisions was unacceptable. But things have changed, and science is now infinitely more expensive than it was then.

How, on behalf of UK plc, should the Government allocate its cash? Decisions on specific scientific programmes are still made by the Research Councils; but overall allocations are decided by the politicians.

The socio-economic case
Some while ago, practitioners in the Arts and Culture began to espouse the 'socially useful' position: what they do should be supported because it helps community development and regeneration generically, and makes jobs.

My expectation is that, finally, the physical scientists may catch on to the same notion.

Currently, there is little of any discussion about how investment in Big Science - the large research facility programmes - impacts on the locations in which it is placed. In the future this may change.

Jobs and infrastructure
Some 10,000 scientists are employed by (and were attracted to work in) the LHC; and that's before we get to the armies of scribes and other support staff required for such a programme. This, inevitably, must have a huge impact on the various economies in which LHC is embedded.

Scientists until now have held the idea that 'value-added' - the additional socio-economic regenerational (as opposed to simply business) impact of research investment, over and above its scientific value as such - is irrelevant to their decisions about which proposals to support. Research funds may be from the public purse, but regenerational impact, we are told, is irrelevant to decisions about where programmes are located.

Shifting criteria
This high-minded dismissal of non-science-related socio-economic impact, I predict, is about to come to an end. Many technologists and natural scientists, like their more arty colleagues, now make compelling cases for how useful their work will be to society, within quite short time spans.

This is the only way practitioners in the more abstract and fundamental physical sciences can go, in terms of short-term impact. They will have to begin, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the legitimacy of questions about the ways their huge budgets can, alongside unravelling the mysteries of the universe, provide improvements to local economies, infrastructures and regional regenerational prospects.

You read it here first.


Read also:
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability

From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge

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