A good value for money

The world only needs 30 billion dollars a year to eradicate hunger. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf today appealed to world leaders for such an effort in order to re-launch agriculture and avert future threats of conflicts over food.

This reminded me of a discussion I had last week, during a visit of local politicians to CERN installations. During the discussion, a kind lady made a comment I must have heard a number of times:

“What you’re doing here is fascinating, but when I think about the amount of money needed to realize all that, I wonder whether it could not be used for a better task. You know, with all the people dying of hunger in the third world…”

Yes, I’ve asked myself the same question, a few times. And yes, I have given myself answers. But I won’t provide these to you. I’ll just tell you some facts, some of which I just checked up today:

– The annual budget of CERN is about 1 billion dollar per year.

– The total cost of the LHC is estimated to about 6 billion dollars.

– A single F-22 fighter plane cost is more than 300 million dollars, while a B-2 bomber costs up to 2.2 billion dollars (including R&D costs, subdivided by total number of planes built).

– The annual budget of the US defense is more than 500 billion dollars. The annual military expenditure in Italy is (wanna try to guess?) about 30 billion dollars.

– The direct official cost of the Iraq war to the US administration is 845 billion dollars up to date. In a recent book, the Nobel laureate Stiglitz had evaluated the total cost to the US economy to 3000 billion dollars. A very conservative estimate, he claims.

When somebody ask a physicist today about what practical use one can make of the potential discoveries of an experiment like LHC, there’s only one possible answer: “We don’t know (yet)”. The same answer Faraday apparently gave to Gladstone, then British minister of finances, who was asking him about the practical use of electricity. “But I guess one day the government would put a tax on it.” , he added.

We indeed know a bit more about the practical uses of electricity today. I guess I don’t need to remind you what the practical use of a bomber is.

I hope the information I provided can help somebody to decide whether the money invested in fundamental science is a good value for money or not. Everyone, of course, will have his own opinion. I think I’ll stick to mine.

17 Responses to “A good value for money”

  1. Very sensible. One shall be amazingly single-minded to judge the allocation of resources of whole countries (actually, groups of countries) just the same way as personal finance (“this month I’ll save on cigars because I’ve already spent too much into cognac”).
    It just doesn’t work this way.
    The worst in your story is that the person who said that has apparently some kind of political influence.

  2. Roberto Says:

    Actually it is not as bad, since the lady was part of the delegation of a local administration which is actually financing, through collaborations, basic research activities at CERN. And I guess she was simply echoing, not too strongly, a popular argument.
    I find somewhat unavoidable, if short-sighted, the fact that the general public tend to question basic research funding. It’s a very long term investment, and most people don’t worry too much about things that are far away in space and time.
    Unfortunately politicians in general appear to have an even shorter attention span than the average guy next door.
    What I find most amazing – and a tad depressing – is how the great majority of people hardly ever challenge military expenses.

  3. 1stnysteward Says:

    Pure research ALWAYS pays off; maybe not the way you think it will, or as fast as you would like: but it WILL PAY OFF.
    I have no problem with the cash spent on this type of research,
    in fact I prefer this type of work over some idiotic, will never pay off research like Star Wars.
    This could easily lead to a method of tapping into dark energy and limitless, cheap energy forever.
    Good luck.

  4. Makes good sense. Thanks for numbers.

  5. 1stnysteward, Kuroki Kaze, thanks to both of you for your attention and your kind comments.

  6. Hi!

    According to the Guardian, a UK newspaper, americans spent $2.2 billion on chewing gum last year.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jan/11/thepriceofdemocracy

    And according to the BBC, just under $5 billion is spent on Halloween cards, candy, costumes, and the like.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/james_westhead/2006/10/scary_spending.html

    Perhaps there’ll be a small black hole – a small disaster – and then someone can declare a public holiday. With special chewing gum as an act of remembrance.

    Nobody’ll even notice the price.

  7. This project will bring about great discoveries; that is not in doubt. The governments of the world will figure out some way to militarize some of the technology that is spun off from these experiments; that too is not in doubt. The global cartel will find ways to commericalize some of the technologies and bring about great changes to the lives of the masses and generate billions in profits; that is also not in doubt. The only doubt is from the same old nonthinkers who never believe that progress is not only good but neccessary from the advancement of mankind.

  8. Nobody can be fed with 300 billion dollar, not for a year, not even for a day or a second.

    would you like to eat money?

    think before stating such ignorant and shortsighted statements.

    Allah must really like idiots, else he wouldn’t have made so many of them.

  9. Neil Fiertel Says:

    This is a very good rebuttal of the arguments against pure research. I especially like the chewing gum costs vs. CERN’s marvelous efforts. The U.S. cancelled their accelerator and have handed the mantle of pure research to Europe. This is a sure sign of the pure political judgment of that once proud bearer of New Physics back to where it all began..in Europe. The torch of knowledge moves on once again as foolish and ignorant politcians make judgment calls in areas of which they have no knowledge or interest. Without education, people make comparisons of CERN with other needs and see not its amazing possibilities but rather what it costs vis a vis some pet project of their own. The ridiculous costs of the military puts it directly in comparison and CERN is a cheap deal. What exactly does a B-2 bomber give us in the end? Security..no…great discoveries..no..profit for the military/industrail complex…bingo! I suggest more money for research in all of its forms as it is through discovery we gain our future. Through war machines we gain our eventual demise.

  10. @ all: thanks for your comments & sorry for the delayed answers – just back from vacation.

    @ Oskar & Neil: I like the chewing gum numbers also. Useful to illustrate how the cost of a few important if expensive items looks small when compared with cheap unimportant stuff which comes in very large numbers. However, as Neil pointed out, I especially wanted to stress how some of the largest public expenditures are actually counter productive, and how savings on even a small fraction of them would benefit all of us. Twice.

    @ Jim: Very true, money cannot be eaten. However, the collective illusion on which it is based is surprisingly powerful when it comes to supporting the high standards of living of many, while negating at the same time the most basic needs to even more people, all around the world. It seems like we are a bunch of self deceiving idiots indeed.

  11. A good post, which I have forwarded to a few friends. One minor criticism: the Faraday quote is apocryphal, and in fact Gladstone was Prime Minister, not Finance minister, but didn’t become so until after Faraday was dead. See http://www.snopes.com/quotes/faraday.asp

  12. @ Mike: Thanks for your appreciation and for your correction. I remembered hearing the quote from somebody, but I think I checked on wikiquote when I wrote it down. I should have suspected then, since it is given there as unsourced (I just controlled). Apologies.
    However, Gladstone was indeed Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) from 1852 to 1855 and then again from 1859 to 1865 or so. Faraday died in 1867, and Gladstone become Prime Minister in 1868, as you correctly state. So in theory the anecdote could be true, but I admit it’s unlikely.
    While I was fishing for such information, I also discovered something that made me feel a bit less guilty. The same anecdote is reported in this short writing (on the CERN public website) by Chris Llewellyn Smith, one of the leading British physicists and former CERN director general.

    Somehow it makes one feel good, to be in the company of such a big shot. Even if what we share is only a banal mistake.

  13. […] em algo assim ao invés de solucionar outros problemas da Humanidade, sugiro a leitura deste artigo aqui (em inglês). O que mais me espantou nisso tudo foi a declaração de cientistas de que, embora […]

  14. Brianna Reese Says:

    The problem with this picture is not the cost, it is the fact that we have money at all. Imagine a world in which money doesn’t exist and all is done for the good of mankind and not for the almighty dollar. Man created the biggest monster of all when he created cash-profits. Imagine a world in which each individuals fulfillment of potential is the greatest reward… Imagine a world where each child is schooled to achieve their greatest potential. Imagine a world where eradicating hunger does not cost bucks.

    I could go on, but you get the picture.

  15. Brianna Reese, you sound like a John Lennon.🙂

  16. […] a las críticas por el pastón que vale todo el tinglado, aquí quedan bien rebatidas así que por ahí vale.  Por otro lado en Wired están bastante bien […]

  17. Brianna Reese Says:

    The edited version — that’s what I get for writing when I’m tired.

    Would you believe I never really cared for the guy? I just know what is right, and the way it is ain’t right. The crazy thing is that so many of us are creating the wealth for the 5% of our country keep doing so. If every one of us refused to man the stores, go to the office, trudge away in the factories that are left in this country, we would topple the upper echelons. But we are like trained rabbits marching along – mindless peabrains giving those lovely people time to sit around at their pools and drink $1,000 bottles of wine, while people all around us go hungry. To repeat a saying that I have never forgotten, “Don’t trickle something down my leg and call it rain.” I say everyone stock up and stay out of work for a month, and watch those at the top topple.

    Trickle that…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: