Big Science

Which is worth more, membership to the CERN supercollider or over 300 lifetime academic positions?

It’s questions like this that come up every time big science is discussed – big projects cost big money and, since there’s never unlimited money, mean big decisions.

For some context:

  • The entire Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Research Fund allocation in 2015 was $59.8 million including GST.
  • Funding for the NZ supercomputer network totals $48.4 million
  • The Hubble Space Telescope cost over US$2.5 billion for just construction, and the estimated cumulative costs are estimated at over US$10 billion

Compare to these, the rough cost of an academic’s salary for the entire 40 years of their working career – only $5 million.

Big science has the possibility of big results, but it also requires an absolutely enormous investment without any guarantee of when those results will come, if at all. A massive criticism of big science is the drain that is imposes on funding allocations. For example, Denmark – also a relatively small population – contributed 1.6% of the money required for CERN to run. That’s $5.5 per person. That was approximately 31.3 million NZD, for just 1.6% of what was needed.  That’s over half the government money put into research in New Zealand. Just think what else could be done with that much funding.

Big science has definite opportunities but those opportunities come at both a massive financial cost and an opportunity cost – since the money wasn’t put into other projects, results from those have been delayed or lost completely in favour of big science projects.

There lies the controversy over big science.

Do we fund these projects and collaborate with other countries to achieve a world-wide project, or do we put our money into more, smaller projects which may produce more diverse and New Zealand centered results?

That’s up for debate.


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