Is Science worth it?
'a high concentration of clever people'
Robert Nash | 24 January 2016

With vast amounts of money (over 1 trillion dollars in 2010) being spent around the world on scientific research we may sometimes doubt the worth of such endeavor. There are certainly many noble uses of such amounts of money - feeding the worlds many poor being just one example. I would, however, like to illustrate just some of the things which Science has done for society in an attempt to defend its cost [editor interjects: and his future salary].

I shall start with an example which, although not seismic in its impact on the world’s populace, has proved really rather useful in our everyday lives since it started operation just twenty years ago. Whilst being able to accurately determine one’s location anywhere on earth is now considered an everyday part of life; the GPS which provides this capability is the culmination of various scientific endeavors which at one stage might have been considered unnecessary and costly. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which at its inception must have seemed the epitome of inconsequential scientific folly, was crucial as its understanding allowed the GPS to account for the difference in the rate of the passage of time on earth and in space. GPS works by finding the time it takes for a signal to travel from a satellite to the receiver (i.e. a smartphone) and therefore relies on an accurate comparison between the times a message was sent and received. A slight snag in this idea is that, bizarrely, time passes at different rates depending on where you are; a difference so acute (45 microseconds per day!) that if it were not accounted for the accuracy of GPS locations would degrade by c. 10 km per day. We can therefore see that a piece of seemingly abstract science came to have quite a significant impact on the world.

Another example of the benefit of scientific endeavor can be seen in the huge advancements stemming from the space race (again including GPS). The space race is perhaps one of the most expensive scientific endeavors to date with NASA’s total budget since creation alone coming to almost one trillion dollars. It has, however, been of enormous benefit to society. Just one example of the many innovations spurred by space exploration is the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Whilst the idea of an MRI machine for medial scanning had been was developed outside of NASA, it was the development of the digital camera by NASA engineer Eugene Lally which allowed for the theoretical operation of the MRI machine to be practically implemented. In doing so, NASA has therefore been instrumental in helping to save countless lives as a result of the improved diagnoses and treatment of numerous ailments from cancer to sports injuries.

Another important technology to come from the efforts of NASA is low cost photovoltaic solar cells for energy production. Solar cells have already had a significant impact on energy production around the world helping to wean humanity off fossil fuels with the potential for further increases in impact as new technologies are developed. Solar cells also have an important role to play in the provision of electricity in developing nations which lack the large scale infrastructure to deliver electricity from power plants to the whole population as is possible in more developed nations. Solar panels are therefore important as they allow small, isolated communities to gain access to electricity at a fraction of the cost of installing traditional infrastructure bringing with it many benefits such as electric lights - improving education and health. It was NASA who pioneered this new technology in the early days of space flight when they were looking for a means of providing a perpetual power source to spacecraft on extended missions which could be sustained using conventional generation technologies.

One of the advantages of fostering scientific research is that it simply results in a high concentration of clever people; leading to the development of new technologies tangential to their primary research efforts. Perhaps the prime example of this is the development of the World Wide Web (for incorrect simplification – the Internet) by Sir Tim Berners-Lee whilst working at CERN (of Large Hadron Collider fame). CERN is a large internationally funded research center which investigates particle physics and which provided the ideal environment for Berners-Lee to develop ‘the Internet’ which many would consider to be one of the most impactful human inventions of all time. This is an example of how funding science can, not only lead to huge benefits to society as a result of perusing the primary objective, but also result in significant benefit by creating breeding grounds for innovation.

I would therefore conclude that scientific research is of course incredibly valuable to society and would hope that humanity will long into the future continue to provide the resources necessary to pursue such worthwhile and beneficial undertakings.

Image sourced under the Creative Commons license


James Routledge 2016