Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Bottom Line

Interesting thing about the "Science is Vital" rally yesterday in London (I was there, man). Most of the speakers spoke about medicine. Is it easier to explain to a politician (or a member of the public) the benefits of science from the point of medicine, when lives are directly affected?

I was thinking about the work that researchers do on the NGS, and it seems entirely plausible that in-silico drug screening, modelling bloodflow through the brain, or defibrillation of the heart will save lives someday, if they haven't already (and there's much more!)

While this work has a high impact on the individual whose life it saves, it is more subtle to assess the economic impact of some of the other work. What use is it to know how dinosaurs walk? If we find the Higgs (over on GridPP), will it make us all richer? What is the use of astronomy? A point that was made yesterday is that we can't say beforehand what is "good" and what is not. Impact can come from the strangest places. Knowing how dinosaurs walk would make the next dinosaur-themed blockbuster more interesting. The recent work which led to a Nobel prize in physics involved (more or less) pencils and sticky tape. The particle accelerators and the Universe are laboratories for the very small and the very large (in fact the Universe is also a particle accelerator), and they both lead to an increased understanding of the laws of physics, which in turn lead to many other benefits.

It was left to Simon Singh to remind us of maths, the lives saved by cryptanalysis during WWWII when Enigma was cracked. (I might add the same kind of maths is also the foundation of e-Commerce.)

The more subtle benefit is that if and when we solve these problems, we also have the infrastructure to solve them (like the NGS), and we know how to do it (e.g. CFD, or computational modelling, visualisation, steering, etc.)

And of course doing exciting things like watching planets and stars, or seeing dinosaurs walk, helps attract young people into a science career, the next generation of researchers.

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