Kriza velike znanosti

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    Steven Weinberg, nobelov nagrajenec za fiziko in eden glavnih tvornikov standardnega modela fizike osnovnih delcev, je v The New York Review of Books objavil esej pod naslovom “The Crisis of Big Science”. Marsikaj vam je morda ze znano (namrec, da bo tezavno zbrati podporo za naslednji velik pospesevalnik), a je v eseju tudi kar mnogo zanimivih detajlov, ki jih vsaj jaz se nisem slisal. Nekaj izsekov (toplo priporocam branje celotnega eseja).

    In the early 1980s the US began plans for the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC, which would accelerate protons to 20 TeV, three times the maximum energy that will be available at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. After a decade of work, the design was completed, a site was selected in Texas, land bought, and construction begun on a tunnel and on magnets to steer the protons….

    …Then in 1992 the House of Representatives canceled funding for the SSC. Funding was restored by a House–Senate conference committee, but the next year the same happened again, and this time the House would not go along with the recommendation of the conference committee. After the expenditure of almost two billion dollars and thousands of man-years, the SSC was dead. 

    …Spending for the SSC had become a target for a new class of congressmen elected in 1992. They were eager to show that they could cut what they saw as Texas pork, and they didn’t feel that much was at stake. The cold war was over, and discoveries at the SSC were not going to produce anything of immediate practical importance. Physicists can point to technological spin-offs from high-energy physics, ranging from synchotron radiation to the World Wide Web. For promoting invention, big science in this sense is the technological equivalent of war, and it doesn’t kill anyone. But spin-offs can’t be promised in advance. 

    …During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.” 

    …But I do not believe that we can make significant progress without also pushing back the frontier of high energy. So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes. 

    …Funding is a problem for all fields of science. In the past decade, the National Science Foundation has seen the fraction of grant proposals that it can fund drop from 33 percent to 23 percent. But big science has the special problem that it can’t easily be scaled down. It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle. 

    …The recent history of the James Webb Space Telescope, planned as the successor to Hubble, is disturbingly reminiscent of the history of the SSC. At the funding level requested by the Obama administration last year, the project would continue, but at a level that would not allow the telescope ever to be launched into orbit 

    …Some of the slack in big science is being taken up by Europe, as for instance with the LHC and a new microwave satellite observatory named Planck. But Europe has worse financial problems than the US, and the European Union Commission is now considering the removal of large science projects from the EU budget. 

    …The International Space Station was sold in part as a scientific laboratory, but nothing of scientific importance has come from it. 

    The International Space Station was partly responsible for the cancellation of the SSC. … At a hearing before a House committee, I heard a congressman say that he could see how the Space Station would help us to learn about the universe, but he couldn’t understand that about the SSC. I could have cried. As I later wrote, the Space Station had the great advantage that it cost about ten times more than the SSC, so that NASA could spread contracts for its development over many states. Perhaps if the SSC had cost more, it would not have been canceled. 

    …We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose. Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a member of the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I was impressed when she spoke eloquently about the need to spend money to improve higher education in Texas. What professor at a state university wouldn’t want to hear that? I naively asked what new source of revenue she would propose to tap. She answered, “Oh, no, I don’t want to raise taxes. We can take the money from health care.” This is not a position we should be in. 

    It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.