Monday, 17 November 2014

What is the value of basic research?

Rosetta cost €1.4 billion.
They claim there are practically no benefits. They say it was a huge waste of money.

I will start with the boring facts.

Let's take a look at the numbers.

The total cost of the mission (1996-2015) was €1.4 billion. (An average of €74.7 million p.a.). This translates to € 3.2 for every European taxpayer (€0.2 p.a. from 1996 to 2015).

For comparison:

  • Price of cinema ticket (Odeon Leicester Sq): £17.5 (€21.9)
  • Cost of 4 Airbus A380 airplanes: € 1.7 billion.
  • Cost of US elections (year 2012): $ 6.9 billion. (about € 5.0 billion.)
  • Cost of Olympic Games “Athens 2004”: € 8.95 billion.
  • Public health costs in G. Britain (NHS - year 2012): £ 121.3 billion. (approximately € 151.8 billion.)
  • Total EU expenditure on armaments (sum total of national expenditure of member states - year 2012): € 192.5 billion.

But what was Rosetta’s mission?
To study the chemical composition of a comet, a relic from the formation of the Solar System. To give us clues of the conditions prevailing when the solar system was at its infancy. Some components of such comets may have played a role in the formation of the oceans on Earth - and therefore the emergence of life.

Other than the innovative technology of Rosetta’s solar panels and inspiring the scientists of tomorrow, the mission has no direct and measurable benefits. Like any ambitious research that methodically chips away at human ignorance to reveal beneath the crust the face of the future, there need not be any.

It is said that when Faraday had become famous, Queen Victoria invited him for lunch at the palace. During that meal the Queen asked him “... and now pray tell me, of what use is this ‘Electricity?’ ” He reportedly replied “Madam, of what use is a new-born baby?” (In another version of the story, the question was actually posed by Prime Minister Peel, and the appropriate response was given: “Why sir, it may be a taxable item!”)

What is the use of the discovery of fire? of the wheel? of gunpowder? of America? of radioactivity? That mass and energy are equivalent? Or the knowledge that the Earth is an oblate spheroid and not flat, and that we are not the center of the Universe? By what yardstick can one measure the volume displacement of new knowledge, and when should the measurement be taken?

All major discoveries that leave indelible marks in the ageing body of History serve the purpose of road-signs for its labyrinthine pathways. There is no need to justify them in the present, because we cannot know what fruit they may yet bear. It is heartening to perceive that humanity has seemingly retained some of its youthful vigor in struggling to acquire new knowledge for the sole purpose of enjoying the journey. When we stop subsidizing research that has no immediate practical applications, arteriosclerosis will come. And then we might as well bar the doors and put the lights out.

European Defence Agecy Data Portal
Office of National Statistics (UK)
European Space Agency