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Ethics of Big Science

The stereotypical view of the research scientist is often a solitary figure in a lab coat and glasses, pouring over a bench experiment in a cluttered lab (smoking test tubes optional). In this picture, the experimentalist is a solitary creature who devotes their life to studying some esoteric piece of knowledge that has no bearing whatsoever on the "real world" around them. This does happen, of course, but these days it is rarely the case. As we try to probe smaller, further, deeper in search of an understanding of the universe around us, we need bigger, sharper, more powerful instruments to make progress, and this requires cooperation. All you have to do is take a look at the new papers on the astro-ph preprints server to see how many results are actually the result of collaborations, some of them very large. There was one paper recently that had more than 200 co-authors. This is common in particle physics, less so in astronomy.

This is Big Science: experiments that require so much equipment, funding and manpower that no one country, let alone a single research group at one university, can afford it on their own. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is one current well-known Big Science project, ESO and ESA are organisations set up to enable Big Science projects within Europe, and the Square Kilometre Array is a global example, a project to build a radio interferometer on such a large scale that not one but nineteen countries are currently involved.

The ATLAS experiment at CERN
The ATLAS experiment at CERN, an example of Big Science CREDIT: Frank Hommes

Science is often about challenges, usually intellectual, sometimes personal, but all too often financial and political, especially where Big Science is concerned. The current financial situation of the STFC is rather worrying for the whole community (there's a discussion about this by some well-known figures in the astronomy community going on in the comments over on Andy Lawrence's blog), not just Big Science, and the British government's apparent push for research that will provide short-term economic return for the country is seen by many as short-sighted. The problem has been around for a while of course, but the recent wider global problems have just made an already bad situation worse.

Big Science is a topic that comes up regularly when talking to the public, especially somewhere like Western Australia where most of the population have heard of the SKA and are aware that it is a big project, even if they are fuzzy on the details. Live "Ask an Astronomer" sessions are a lot of fun; the challenge of having to quickly think on your feet really gets the adrenalin going, but sometimes you do get a tough audience. One recent group I had were particularly vocal on the ethics of Big Science projects.

Astronomy is not usually thought of as a science that involves ethics: unlike biotech, genetics, drug testing, etc. we don't have to run our plans for experiments past ethics committees. But that's not to say that we can live in our own little world, away from the problems around us. A recent school group I talked to asked a lot of questions about how we can justify spending ∀3b on a telescope when there are people starving in the world. Getting one question on the point or usefulness of astronomy in a talk is fairly common, but it was obviously something this group felt very strongly about. I really felt like I was defending astronomy, and science in general, trying to justify why we carry out pure research to a room full of students who might never have had the chance to carry out an experiment where they didn't already know the answer before they started.

I tried in several ways to convince them that there are benefits to these projects, beyond just keeping a few astronomers off the streets. Things that are being discovered or investigated for the first time now in pure science experiments may develop into highly useful technological applications in the future, for example some image processing techniques developed by astronomers have led to important improvements in medical imaging, helping to spot the early signs of cancer. The discussion also ranged over engineering spin offs, development (and installation in remote communities) of high-speed networks, computing, the training of future scientists and engineers, jobs (it's going to take a lot of people to build the SKA!), as well as less tangible reasons for doing it like satisfying our curiosity and the sheer excitement of science (I think one of my comments was along the lines of "being a scientist is like being a kid forever, it's great!"). Another very cynical defense would be that even if you said "OK, we wont build the SKA, we'll give the money back to governments so they can build shelters for the homeless", would those governments actually use the money to help them, or would they just build another aircraft carrier? I don't know.

The fact that we get these questions from the public is not really that surprising, they are paying our wages after all. We have to justify ourselves to the funding agencies and the government anyway, why shouldn't the tax payer ask us to justify ourselves? That young people are asking these questions gives me some hope for the future. I hope that they grow up questioning things around them, not just accepting everything because it's always been that way. Curiosity drives science, and we're going to need plenty of good scientists and engineers to solve the practical problems that lie in our future.

Posted by Megan on Monday 05th Oct 2009 (14:58 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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