Spending on pure science 'needs to be protected'

Cern leader to tell engineers that advances come from fundamental research. Paul Jump reports

October 21, 2010

The Royal Academy of Engineering made a big bang in the scientific world when it said in its submission to this week's Comprehensive Spending Review that some of the public money currently spent on particle physics should be redirected to engineering research.

So it raised some eyebrows when the academy announced that its annual Hinton Lecture was to be given by Lyn Evans, the retiring project leader of the Cern particle physics facility's flagship project, the Large Hadron Collider.

Dr Evans agreed to give the lecture several months before the CSR submission, but speaking before the event last week, he said that rather than pulling out, he saw the lecture as a chance to "educate" engineers about the value of pure science.

"Time and time again it has been proved that the real (scientific) advances have been discovered through fundamental research. But I understand that in these difficult times everyone is looking after their own patch," he said.

Dr Evans, a Welshman who is also a visiting professor at Imperial College London, said Cern represents an "extremely well-organised" pooling of global spending on particle physics, and had already agreed a €250 million (£220 million) cut in its budget for 2011-15. Its running costs, he added, are no more than those of a "medium-sized European university".

He said the UK, which provides 15 per cent of Cern's budget, is getting "excellent scientific value" from the Large Hadron Collider.

But he admitted that despite British laboratories' central involvement in the design of many of its components, the decline in the country's manufacturing base meant that the UK has been unable to win its fair share of the lucrative contracts to build them.

"We need to try to avoid this happening again, in areas such as renewable energy. I have heard politicians say we need to move on to the next level (and focus on a services economy), but it is manifestly not the whole story," he said.

Dr Evans, who led the Large Hadron Collider since its first designs were drawn up in 1993, said keeping the public informed and excited about the project is "part of our job", and he welcomed the media attention it had attracted - even if it had not always been for the right reasons.

He was philosophical about the breakdown that closed the collider for more than a year just nine days after it was first switched on in September 2008.

And he was not unduly concerned that its launch had been "spiced up" by internet scare stories warning that recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang could give rise to mini black holes that would swallow up the Universe. "The coverage was quite tongue-in-cheek in the UK, and I quite enjoyed it," he said.

He admitted that trying to maintain media discipline among the 3,000 physicists involved is "like trying to herd cats", and he expected others to follow in the footsteps of University of Padua physicist Tommaso Dorigo, whose blog this summer reported unfounded rumours that the Higgs boson - the fabled "God particle" - had been detected by the Large Hadron Collider's US rival, the Tevatron.

"Normally new data are presented at scientific conferences, but when the big breakthrough is made let's see what really happens," he said.


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