The world spends millions a year on telescopes, synchrotrons, colliders, DNA databases and other big science projects. What does it get for that money?
For society, the answer to this question will help inform politicians when faced with funding proposals for a new synchrotron and a new highway, but a budget that can only accommodate one or the other.
The global annual spend on R&D, including basic research, is more than $1 trillion, with the biggest and most expensive projects, such as particle accelerators and DNA databases, carrying correspondingly big price tags.
ITER, the experimental international fusion reactor in the south of France, is taking years and costing more than €13 billion to build.
The Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest radio telescope now under development in South Africa and Australia, will cost more than €1.5 billion.
In a sea of numbers, which vary wildly from one study to another, a new Science|Business report analyses the available evidence on how big science can pay its way. It tackles the issue broadly, starting with the benefits of basic research generally, and then assesses the additional benefits of big science projects, which because they concentrate expertise and effort, play a special role in innovation.
A major focus of the report involved bringing together some of Europe’s most important experts on research infrastructures and asking them how big science can do even more to pay its way.
Five recommendations for policymakers emerged:
- Broaden the debate, so that the policy decisions taken when shaping new big science projects factor in broader economic and social needs. It is imperative to broaden the contact between research infrastructures and society.
- Study what works and how, and explain it better. Economists have yet to devise good, consistent ways to measure the impact of spin-outs from research, but that should be a priority, since it can help guide policy.
- Open up the innovation process at big science institutions. More contact with industry, entrepreneurs, investors and other value-creators, is needed to speed the translation of good science to practical application. As one exemplar, CERN, the ESADE Business School in Barcelona and Aalto University in Helsinki, are working on an initiative to open up the advanced detector and imaging technologies used at CERN, to entrepreneurs and businesses. The aim is to stimulate new services and products. To achieve this it will be necessary to develop a porous interface between science and commercial exploitation where this interchange can happen.
- Focus on people and training. One of the greatest attributes of big science is the human capital it attracts. Smart people, gathered together, do surprising things, including training other smart people who can go on to do other surprising things, in industry, finance, services and policy.
- Bridge the cultural gap between science and industry, through original public-private projects, programmes and policies. But recognise that different communities have different sociologies. Venture capitalists do not care about prestige; scientists care a lot about prestige.