Denham goes back to basics on funding for science

Minister rebuts allegations that only 'commercial' projects get government support, writes Zoe Corbyn

September 18, 2008

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, has rounded on critics who claim that the Government is interested in funding only research that has immediate commercial benefits.

Speaking at a London event to mark the "switch on" 300ft beneath the French-Swiss border last week of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Mr Denham said that the £6 billion particle physics experiment was a clear "riposte" to those who say the British Government does not care about funding basic science.

Mr Denham said that the Government's commitment to boosting the economic impact of the research it funds had been "misinterpreted" by critics who claim that the Government is interested only in funding what is "immediately economically relevant".

"Nothing could be further from the truth. Fundamental science is critical ... the LHC gives us such a great riposte," he told the audience of the launch event in London.

The UK Government, via the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has contributed more than £500 million to construction of, and preparations for, the LHC project at the Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) laboratory for particle physics near Geneva.

Scientists hope that when particle collisions start there in October, answers will be found to fundamental questions about the origins of the universe.

Mr Denham said the funding for the project was driven by "a desire to know", and by an interest in understanding how our world and our universe operate.

"We should spend money on this sort of thing (LHC) because we are interested in answers to those questions," he told Times Higher Education. "It is part of what makes us human beings. We would be a much sadder, poorer world if we did not want to know the answers to these questions."

He added that the project should be "absolutely defended" in its own right against any charge that it was a waste of money. But if people wanted to ask the question about return for investment, the UK "got far more out" of its investment in Cern in terms of economic impact than it had put in.

"It turns out to be a fantastic investment," he said, citing how a Cern scientist had developed the World Wide Web, "but fundamentally we do it because we want to know the answers," he told Times Higher Education.

He said that it was the policy of the Government - "quite rightly" - that if fundamental research produced outcomes that were of economic relevance, "we should absolutely exploit that economic relevance to the maximum degree".

Investment in the LHC began more than 20 years ago under the Thatcher Government, but it was continued under Labour. Mr Denham praised it as a genuinely international project "of which we have far too few".

He denied that recent moves by the STFC to stop investment in the International Linear Collider and 4GLS project at Daresbury meant that the LHC marked the end of government funding for big particle-physics projects. He said that in these cases, the science behind them dictated that they were not priorities for investment.

"There will be something after the LHC - but that will come as a decision that takes place in light of what people know and in the next generation of technology," he said.

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