Monday, June 02, 2014

A Disappointingly Weak Case Made For HEP Funding

When I came across this blog entry in Huff Post by a high-energy physicist, I thought, "Oh good! Someone is going to make a good case to the public on why they, and the politicians, should not make funding cuts to HEP". I was sadly disappointed after a rather weak essay made to argue for its support. The basic argument was made in the very last paragraph:

I encourage you to find out more about the exciting science to be done. I hope that after this significant planning exercise, our field will be able to make the case that we are good stewards of the public money, have an exciting program that benefits humanity, and will receive more positive news from the budgets to come.

In other words, fund us because we do good and important science.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, such a thing just doesn't work, or is not that convincing anymore. In fact, I think in the few essays on this that I've written on my blog, I had made a more convincing arguments on why HEP funding is NECESSARY, and I'm not even in HEP!

Whenever someone from an esoteric field such as HEP, Astrophysics, etc.. tries to make a point on why it is necessary to fund such a field, there must be several different types of argument to be made when it is pitched to non-specialists/scientists:

1. Pitch the science, i.e. what are you trying to do.

2. Argue why basic knowledge, even when there seems to be no obvious application or benefit to mankind, is necessary, based on history.

3. Argue why the process of studying these things, especially in experiments done, had produced numerous "by products" that are now ubiquitous in our lives. So even areas that may not have any immediate applications from the knowledge, have produced many immediate applications just from the pursuit of studying these things.

4. Present the percentage of money being spent in perspective, i.e. look how how minuscule the funding for HEP in DOE's Office of Science, for example, when compared with the funding levels of other fields and when compared to the cost of a single stealth bomber. You cannot just present a number to the public without putting in some context and perspective. After all, to many (all?) of us, US$750 million is a lot of money! But is it a lot when compared to the overall funding picture and the costs of many of the things being paid out of the US budget?

Based on my interactions with many of the members of the public for many years, both in person and online, these are the four main points that I have found to be effective in convincing many to fund these areas that are very hard to argue for based on the nature of the subject matter. I don't have to argue that hard to convince the public on why funding the study of semiconductors or quantum computation is necessary. They can already figure out the potential applications of these things. Arguing why they need to fund the search for the Higgs require a lot more effort, and a lot more careful thought than just to argue that it is a necessary step in the intellectual process, or that we need to cater to our curiosity. A lot of people are curious, yet they don't seek millions of dollars of public funding to satisfy those curiosities. You need to make a careful, thoughtful, and convincing argument on why support such a thing is important in a number of ways, and how previous fundings of such areas have impacted our lives.

Make it so that they should care!


No comments: