The Costs and Benefits of Scientific Research
In 1970, Sister Mary Jucunda, a Catholic nun aiding children in Zambia, wrote Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then associate director for science at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She questioned how he could, in good conscience, suggest spending billions of dollars on a manned mission to Mars when there is so much misery and squalor here on Earth. Dr. Stuhlinger, deeply touched by her sincere concern, responded with an eloquent essay that has since become an emblem in the pursuit of science.
One of Dr. Stuhlinger’s arguments was based on a compelling parable: In a small town in Renaissance Germany, a count shared a large portion of his income with the often plague-ravaged poor. One day, he met a man who worked in his laboratory in his scant free time during the evenings, grinding lenses and building optical gadgets. The count, fascinated by this man’s work, invited him into his homestead where he would be able to devote all his time to the development and perfection of his contraptions — much to the dissatisfaction of the townspeople, who felt that the count’s wealth deserved better use than this man’s useless hobby. Later, of course, his hobby, along with work done by others, would eventually herald an exceedingly useful device: the microscope.
The great irony, Dr. Stuhlinger argued, was that even if the count had donated his every Thaler to the blight-stricken poor, he would not have helped save as many people from disease as he did by contributing a small portion to something of no immediate apparent benefit.
Fast forward 400 years. At the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, situated on the Franco-Swiss border, the largest machine ever constructed was built in a 27-kilometer-long underground tunnel. The titanic forces produced by the Large Hadron Collider’s superconducting magnets help scientists understand how unimaginably tiny particles interact through the most incredibly delicate forces. Disconnected from everyday reality as it may seem, the same technology that allows physicists to peer into the labyrinthine clockwork of the cosmos can empower next generation medical scanners to improve early cancer detection. Twenty petabytes of data generated each year in experiments demand extremely high performance computing frameworks that researchers in other fields may now take advantage of, from weather forecasting to protein folding. And the unprecedented level of international cooperation involved in the €7.5 billion project is the perfect counterpoint to typical diplomatic egotism and mistrust.
Nevertheless, in the United States science as a whole is being jeopardized by indiscriminate budget cuts as a response to a soaring government budget deficit. As policy makers pull the national economy’s proverbial parking brake in an effort to allay government fiscal irresponsibility, expenses viewed as “discretionary” are not spared the harsher slashes of the scythe. Irrespective of other adverse effects in the United States economy, (perversely, sequestration will likely increase debt) the damage to science will be profound. When funding through government grants becomes scarce, established scientists will have much easier access to the cookie jar than neophytes, aggravating the already harmful competitiveness of the academic job market and driving young, talented brains away from scientific inquiry into more lucrative endeavors.
Each year, as $20 trillion of revenue are generated worldwide in a digital economy whose infrastructure is partly founded on a constellation of more than 8,000 satellites, few doubts should remain about the worth of the now nearly six-decades-old space program. Far from being an accident, it still holds true that even the most arcane branches of science yield prompt applications in a wide variety of fields and reap rewards orders of magnitude above the initial expenditure. Today, these amount to less than 2 percent of the federal budget, comparable to the Department of Homeland Security alone. Even though science’s payouts typically overstep the schedule of quarterly reports (or, for that matter, political representation), how many traditional investment options can claim the same?
Leandro Medina deOlivera is in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his computer engineering degree in 2011 from State University of Campinas in Campinas, Brazil. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering in Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science.