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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One data point does not make a trend

... but if one thinks about the context it can make one nervous that it could be the start of one.

h/t telescoper

Austria has announced that it is pulling out of CERN. This will lead to an increase in costs for the remaining members, not much in the great scheme of things but in a time of financial difficulty it will be a bit of a blow in some areas.

If I were a particle physicist in the UK I would be getting nervous now. Government wants more return on its science spending and the Research Councils, rather than operating at arms-length from government (see this article) are bending over backwards to accomodate wishes. We can debate the role of RCUK until the cows come home but the fact of the matter is (whether we like it or not and Haldane be damned) they are now a defacto branch of government and strongly subject to policy decisions. One such decision is the need to see economic impact.

Now I am sure the PP folks have many excellent examples of how their work influences the economy, but they have to be careful in considering whether such things benefit the UK economy. There is a focus on UK leadership as a requirement for funding how does this translate to projects like CERN?

It is not outside the realms of possibility that some might see CERN as a luxury in these times and Austria's pull-out as a clarion call.

[UPDATE: Do I think that the UK will rush to pull out of CERN? No. Do I think that Austria's pull out has got some people thinking? Yes. Do I think that said people would push for a CERN pull-out? No. At least not until someone else folds out.]

In general I fear that if we do not progress carefully in terms of science policy we will in fact not be progressing at all.

[UPDATE: The thing that sets alarm bells ringing in my head is Austria's rationale for pulling out. I actually understand why they are doing so given the figures involved (70% of their international science budget) and their desire to be involved in other projects. The thing is that here in the UK we hear that we should do less things, but do them better. At the same time there is a drive towards specific areas of scientific inquiry (driven by government policy). Factor in that the science minister has been talking up space as the next big thing for the UK and one starts to wonder what the new big science questions will be...]

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