The staggering costs of big science – is it worth it?

FILE - The LHC (large hadron collider) in its tunnel at CERN (European particle physics laboratory) near Geneva, Switzerland

FILE - The LHC (large hadron collider) in its tunnel at CERN (European particle physics laboratory) near Geneva, Switzerland

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 01:05

Signing up to take part in big science costs big money, but participation also opens up big rewards. It allows researchers to work at the cutting edge with some of the best scientists in the world. It provides a training ground for postgraduate and post doctoral students and helps all scientists who join in to burnish their international reputations. It also opens commercial opportunities for companies based in member states who are given an opportunity to bid for large and small contracts that continually percolate around these major international science initiatives. This, in turn, opens doors abroad, giving companies a chance to impress larger firms and show what they have got.

Big science in this context includes mega projects such as Cern, Europe’s premier nuclear research centre or ESO – the European Southern Observatory – which runs some of the best earth-based telescope systems in the world. Then there is the International Space Station, although its owners are five national space agencies rather than countries.

Researchers can participate however either by getting science experiments approved for temporary or longer-term placement on board the station or getting a chance to send up an astronaut. Another big combine is EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Lab, which is actually a series of labs that accept scientists, students and research fellows from member countries.

Unfortunately, nice things cost money. It cost €4 billion to build the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the machine that discovered the Higgs boson. The estimated cost of building the launching the space station is a staggering €77 billion. ESO also runs into some serious money. It runs a collection of telescopes that sit atop a mountain in Chile and it is in the process of building a new one. The planned European Extremely Large Telescope is going to cost a whopping €1.08 billion, an expense on top of the billions already spent over the years at ESO sites in the Atacama Desert Region.

EMBL comes with a price tag but its scale is more familiar, the cost of buildings, labs and people, no massive accelerators or telescopes.

No one country could easily pay for these centres so they can only come into being as collaborative ventures. The staggering costs are covered by the member states who sign up and this is what gives them the right to say who can participate and on what terms.

Clearly there is an incentive to become a member if you want to be considered a serious player in these different fields of science and the research that underpins them. So, if you want to take part in a major way, then you are going to have to contribute as a full or an associate member.

Ireland is one of 20 countries which hold full membership of EMBL but we are not members of the other organisations. Clearly, membership of EMBL is not going to be as steep as the big ticket science projects, and the State also rightly recognises that we have an international standing in molecular biology research. Effectively we have to be there if we want international credibility.

Unfortunately we are not members of Cern or ESO, with the Government saying that costs were too high and the investment would be unlikely to create sufficient jobs or exports for Ireland to cover the cost. This could change however.

On January 30th, Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock announced that he had requested departmental officials to “carry out a review of Ireland’s international engagement on research and innovation, in particular the costs and benefits of membership of international research organisations, including Cern”.

The review will also cover other bodies such as ESO, and it is a credit to Mr Sherlock that he agreed to reconsider the issue. “Ireland’s membership of international research organisations must be predicated on whether the benefit of membership, in terms of support to Irish researchers, companies and jobs, justifies the cost involved,” he added. Fair enough.

If the cost versus benefit can be shown to measure up, then membership should be considered. It is important, however, that the cost-benefit analysis should consider all the benefits even if difficult to quantify.

What is a reputation for doing good science worth? Quite a lot, if you are trying to create jobs by attracting foreign direct investment. And how do you monetise the benefit of having highly trained graduates available in the same context? Definitely of interest to the companies looking to populate high-tech industries here.

Measuring the value of these is no less difficult than trying to predict if our companies are good enough to win contracts with these international research organisations and in the process derive wealth and create jobs. We won’t know until we sign up and take a chance – but it is worth doing if we have a belief in our own capabilities.

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