The Barrow

9/8/08

Should scientists forget Space?

The UK's former Chief Scientist will today call on the world's leading scientists to turn away from space exploration and particle physics, and look instead to the big challenges facing the globe - like climate change, population growth and poverty in Africa.

At the BA Science Festival, Sir David King will suggest what he describes as a "re-think of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society's inner attitudes towards science and technology."

That would mean less funding for projects like the Hadronn Collider at Cern, moon or Mars landings, and a re-direction of scientific thinking towards problems that threaten civilization.

It's a powerful debate that needs to take place. There's no doubt that the world is moving into a period of crisis that will take both brainpower and fantastic amounts of cash to solve. King suggests an "all hands to the pump" approach, which may be exactly what it takes to save us.

On the other hand, the kind of projects King suggests should be sidelined have shown real benefits to society in many areas not directly related to the project at hand. When radical new thinking takes place, spin-offs can come out of left-field.

On a more mundane note, if science pulls back to global concerns, does that make SF more valuable as the keeper of the flame for science's 'higher purpose' of interaction with the universe and the endless possibilities that may provide?

Mark Chadbourn

8 comments:

ces said...

Tough question. One of those "damned if you do & damned if you don't" ones. If we can't figure out a solution to today's global crises, we'll have to go elsewhere eventually. But if we concentrate on the "elsewhere eventually" we'll never even attempt to find a solution for today. Tough question.

Lou Anders said...

My (admittedly quick) thoughts:
1. So many technologies pioneered for space end up having applications back home. There is a guy a few houses down from my parents whose whole company is devoted to leasing time on the space shuttle to biotech firms for zero-g experiments.
2. One of the largest drivers of tech evolution is the military. Wouldn't it be nice to have a peace/future-focused driver rather than a death/war focused one?
3. Cutbacks to R&D anywhere aren't what the world needs, and there is no guarantee that cutbacks to space research are going to automatically equal an increase elsewhere. It's not like space scientists are just going to repurpose themselves as climatologists.
4. Private industry is going anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter what government says/does.

Lee said...

Why can't we do both?

As Lou Anders brought up, scientists and other intelligent, educated individuals who are trained in fields such as astrophysics won't be the best placed experts to turn from the stars and determine solutions to poverty, etc. Let them continue their valuable work without making them feel somehow less worthy because they are looking outward for answers.

The real issue is money. You need to offer college scholarships to encourage bright minds to study the issues you wish to solve. You need to offer research grants to attract the right specialists to our worldly issues. You need governments willing to restructure budgets to assist in these efforts.

There are plenty of people and organizations dedicated to saving everything from our forests and ozone layer to the lives of children in Africa. The question is, do they have the resources necessary to effect change? If not, how do we provide what they need?

Turning off Hubble won't help Darfur.

Lou Anders said...

Amen. Imagine if the 8 billion that went missing in Halliburton were spent on science education initiatives in lower-income public schools. Seems like that would kill two or three birds with one stone.

I loved Professor John Ellis's response: " "The driver for inventing the web was the need for thousands of physicists from around the world who work together on large particle experiments to collaborate effectively by sharing documents and data... These were the first communities that needed to go online, leading the way for the rest of humanity."

He also points out:
"Space exploration and particle physics are already helping: for example, Earth satellites monitor climate..."

Walt said...

There used to be a serious discussion, back before WWII, as to whether universities should accept government money for certain research. Advocates envisioned a new, if minor, source of revenue. Others feared that bureaucrats and politicians could end up directing science.
Well, they bit the apple and a couple of generations later we have "leaders" re-thinking our priorities, no doubt for our common good.

Lou Anders said...

And yet corporations only want to put their $$ behind R&D with immediate commercial application (particularly true in pharmaceuticals.)

Mark Chadbourn said...

Personally, I think it's a false argument. The human race cannot afford to abandon space (and we've made a huge mistake by abandoning it to the degree we have, since the seventies) - the potential benefits for our civilization are enormous.

The cash to tackle climate change needs to come from other areas of Government, not from other scientific endeavours. You stray rapidly into the area of politics here - who pays? How much? - and normally I'd be outspoken in my beliefs here, though Pyr might not be happy with me doing it on their blog.

Basically, climate change is not about advancing human knowledge - like particle physics and space research - it's about disaster prevention. Though when a few levees can't be fortified adequately, that argument doesn't fill me with a great deal of confidence.

pedro said...

As stated, expecting people to stop doing what they do best in order to engage in "earth saving research", is not only foolish, but also very unproductive. For most theoretical physicists their work is their life, and, dare i presume, an obsession.

I suppose that in turn this applies also to the (few) entities/people, that have the capital to fund such research, for their obsession is most likely, making yet more money.

Personally, i feel human beings that come up with world changing ideas, do it not for money, but rather to tackle with that unexplainable part of themselves - so, although government funds and grants, as also mentioned here, strikes me as a valid idea that could spark initiative in the matter, i'm of the opinion that they may be relevant in the coming of solutions for the sake of our plane (and i do believe they'll come), as easily as they may not.

Most likely i'll say, these will come out of driven, inspired minds, that will dream our salvation not because of money, but for some much higher and noble calling. One they can't escape from.

On an even more personal note, i thrive on the hope of quantum physics, and it's recent hype of a unifying theory. Specially, on the inspired devotion of scientists to tell a new story of the world, when their rational side knows well that they can all be wrong, but some other side gives them believe to stay thinking at the boundaries of comprehension, along side poets, engineers, musicians, and many others, to shape the world to somewhere we are proud to live in, in spite all of it's flaws.