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The Black Hole

The financial cost of doing science

In light of the current pandemic, it's worthwhile to consider the importance of both public and private investment in basic research programs and the growing role of science in our society.

BY JONATHAN THON | MAR 27 2020

The following is the fourth installment in our five part series on the reduction of science to practice that will comprise the foundation our first book on the core issues facing academic science today.

Scientific discovery is not cheap. While scientists tend to be inherently curiosity- and mission-driven, experiments cost money; which are are typically categorized in the form of equipment (eg. microscope), reagents (eg. chemicals), consumables (eg. disposable plasticware), and cell/tissue/animal costs (eg. human cell line, donated heart, or mice – when it would be unethical to experiment directly on living humans). There are also infrastructure costs like physical space, electricity, plumbing, waste disposal, and personnel costs (eg. technicians, consultants, administrative support) that add to the overall cost of doing science. There are some exceptions – many scientists pride themselves in designing elegant studies that answer very big questions with very simple (but well thought out!) experiments. Often, however, it seems that the bigger the question we strive to answer, the more people and resources we typically require to perform and interpret the experiments, and the more expensive the equipment and reagents we need to use. The Large Hadron Collider, for example, took about a decade to construct (1998-2008), for a total cost of about $4.75 billion. There are several different experiments going on at the LHC, including the CMS and ATLAS Detectors which discovered the Higgs boson that require the combined support of over 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities and laboratories in more than 100 countries.

Historically, financial support of scientific discovery was provided by wealthy patrons who typically backed a single or a handful of scientists. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), for example, presented his newly-discovered moons of Jupiter to the Medici dukes as a “gift,” and was rewarded in turn by Prince Cosimo with the title and position of court philosopher and mathematician. Sometimes, the scientist was independently wealthy or from a wealthy family that could support their indulgences, such as was the case for Charles Darwin. As the societal appetite for scientific discovery increased and the desired pace of scientific advancement has shortened, society has chosen to collectively invest in scientific research – most often through financial support of academic institutions and their scientists in the form of government research grants, foundations, strategic partnerships, and venture capital. In just about every case this approach has borne substantial fruit, accelerating improvements in quality of life for its citizens.

However, the interface between science and society has also exposed our growing understanding of the natural world to politically-motivated interpretations of findings. When the data has not supported desired answers to relevant questions, non-science has been elevated to reinforce pre-existing answers or counterbalance actual ones. Memorable recent examples include the Y2K scare when widespread fear that computers would stop working on December 31, 1999 led governments and private organizations to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to avert the risk; and the day the world didn’t end (even though the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator was turned on near Geneva) no man-made black hole destroyed the planet.

We’re seeing some of that again today in misinformation spread regarding COVID-19, sometimes from the highest levels of government. Equally concerning is the observation that science policy and funding decisions are increasingly becoming reactionary when scientific advancement takes time. With the inevitable human and economic fallout of the current pandemic front and centre in our minds, and another election looming – now is a great time to revisit our wish list for a ‘pro-science’ government and take the long-term view of a more central role for science in our society.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the founder and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis.
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