As a massive atom smasher powers up, ‘Big Science’ moves away from the US
Science funding US unstable compared to europe:
Moreover, researchers overseas point to a lack of stable funding in the US that is turning the country from widely courted partner to an “Ugly Betty” for some big-science projects.
Referring to budget cuts last December that all but eliminated US funding for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), what happened “has severely damaged the credibility of the US as a partner,” says Albrecht Wagner, chairman of the board at DESY, Germany’s high-energy physics lab in Hamburg. In an e-mail, he explains that “seen from abroad, the cuts were caused by a fight between the Congress and the White House. They had nothing to do with science strategy” and sent “very destructive signals to funding agencies and governments around the world.”
For many scientists, including a large contingent from the United States, the project represents a success story for international cooperation on “big science.” But it also serves as evidence that the center of gravity for high-energy physics has shifted away from its post-World War II home in the United States.
The shift coincides with a broader US debate over whether the nation is in danger of losing its edge in science, technology, and innovation, notes David Goldston, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in science policy.
In some ways, this could serve as a high-profile test of the notion that the emergence of cutting-edge labs outside the United States necessarily comes at the US’s expense, he suggests. “The US has had the lead in facilities for a long time; now it won’t,” he says.
But, Mr. Goldston adds, US scientific and engineering contributions to the LHC have been significant. And several university-based researchers in the US note that even though the big show has shifted overseas, they are still seeing an increase in the number of students walking through their doors who want to help explore the frontier the LHC is expected to open.
Why should US taxpayers fund such projects? The arguments for spending on big science are similar to those of funding space missions: The effort to do cutting-edge physics research produces unexpected technological breakthroughs with everyday applications. For example, the World Wide Web was spawned by high-energy scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) trying to find a way to send graphics and other data to their colleagues elsewhere who used different computer systems. Accelerator technology has been adapted to make computer microchips. And there are now medical diagnostic and therapeutic tools, such as proton-beam therapy, that have emerged from this research.