Boom, bust and bonuses

Like capitalism, science has flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got, says Kevin Fong

December 22, 2011

I’m out for Christmas drinks with some folk from a national newspaper and a random financial-sector type whose job appears to revolve around jetting off to New York all the time.

With the jukebox punching out Christmas tunes in the background, I try to get his perspective on the economic crisis - something that triggers instant defensive posturing. “We screwed up, OK!” he shouts at me above the din of Jingle Bell Rock. “But for fuck’s sake, I wish everyone would just stop going on about it and let us get on with our jobs.”

I’ve had to edit this conversation a bit. We were both quite drunk. And he employed a whole sledge of expletives that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but you’ll get the gist.

“I mean, if you screw something up in 2007, do you expect people to be talking about it four years later?!” And so here he was, the unacceptable face of the financial sector at a drinks party for left-wing journalists setting himself up as though he were a clay pigeon provided by the City of London for Christmas entertainment.

The discussion was heated, but in among the expletives and the crass, often nonsensical, analogies were a few jewels of truth. Bankers are feeling bruised and unloved; victimised and held to account daily for stuff that most of them weren’t individually responsible for. Hell, even I’ve started to feel sorry for them. And despite the sector’s wrongdoing as a whole, I very much doubt we’d be better off without them. Capitalism is, after all, the worst economic system - except for all the others. This rapprochement left me and the City Boy in good Christmas cheer.

Still feeling the effects of that outing, I listened the next day to a press announcement from Cern that the Higgs boson remained elusive but was at least moving in towards the cross hairs of the team at the Large Hadron Collider. Cue the age-old debate about whether, in these times of austerity, Big Science is worth all the money we spend on it.

I thought back to my drunken conversation with the bloke from the City the night before. I pondered upon what his take on it would be. Generally the guys with an eye for finance tend to view curiosity-driven research rather suspiciously. The tangible benefits don’t always materialise directly or immediately. And they can be nebulous and unpredictable. Selling that as an investment prospect is always pretty tough.

As the Higgs boson story went on, I remembered Jos Engelen’s response, when he was science director at Cern, to the question of what the man in the street would gain from the Large Hadron Collider.

“Even in my wildest imagination,” he said, “I can’t think of this discovery having a practical application…the Higgs itself is not going to let you make a better toothpaste.” That is probably the most honest response any scientist indulging in fundamental research could give, and a brave man would perhaps have stopped there.

But Engelen continued: “…setting ourselves that goal, doing something so exceptionally difficult, has required us to be innovative technology-wise. I can very easily sell the idea of new and fundamental science using that argument.”

But can he? The line that scientists should be left alone to indulge themselves in a taxpayer-funded sandbox while the man and woman in the street wait patiently for stuff that will benefit their everyday lives, has become increasingly hard to push.

Yes there’s Cern’s contribution to the proliferation of the internet and its more direct involvement in the origins of the World Wide Web. But weren’t those merely emergent properties of the endeavour? Couldn’t you have achieved the same innovation in a more focused way and more cheaply?

Cern did give us the World Wide Web. Would it have arisen anyway? Probably. Would it have arisen so quickly? Of that I’m less sure. I’d argue strongly that Cern was an essential catalytic element for this and other technologies. And getting there faster must be worth something. What would the economic cost of a decade’s delay in the arrival of the World Wide Web have been, I wonder?

But the most important product of Cern was not the internet, it was Sir Tim Berners-Lee and hundreds of scientists like him. Beyond knowledge, the most important role of Big Science is to generate foundations upon which innovators and technologists can build. The benefits that arise from Big Science often arrive unpredictably but in ways that fundamentally change the world in which we live.

“Oh,” say the guys with an eye on actuarial detail, “but it’s so terribly inefficient.” And well, yes, it is. But guess what, so is a financial system that generates money hand over fist for a few years and then drops like a lead balloon, taking the retirement hopes of most workers in the developed world with it. But again, that’s the economic system we have, the best of a bad bunch; led by a market that has to meander and, periodically, has to crash, but one that is capable of incredible feats of wealth creation that, over time, benefit all of us.

The world needs to accept the same when it comes to science: that a system that trains scientists in the way it does, allowing them to be driven by curiosity alone, relying as it does so heavily on serendipity to periodically deliver discoveries of gobsmacking and paradigm-shifting importance is, too, the worst of all systems - except, of course, for all the others.

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