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CERN Proton-smashers: We are economically valuable

Bitchslap for Drayson 'research to benefit economy' call

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International atomsmasher lab CERN has rubbished UK science minister Lord Drayson's suggestion that research funding should focus more on areas which directly benefit the economy. The Minister particularly favoured areas where he made his large personal fortune: med-tech and drugs.

Here are a few highlights of Drayson's speech last week:

Other nations are making choices about which areas to focus on in order to drive future growth ... Shouldn’t we do the same to boost the economic impact of our science base?

Has the time come for the UK – as part of a clear economic strategy – to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation ...?

We have made a start. My question is whether we need to go further and – while maintaining our overall investment in science – shift a greater balance of our investment ...

Medical research has long been a strength of the UK ... We have a strong industrial base in life sciences – Number 2 to the United States with both big pharma and biotech resident here.

Other areas identified by Drayson as worthy of gov research spend included "green energy", "The creative, digital and communications sectors" plus "low-carbon vehicles, intelligent transport and assisted living". Presumably "intelligent transport" includes ramjet-propelled supersonic cars.

One thing that didn't appear to be present on the Science Minister's shopping list was particle physics. The Reg discussed the subject today with James Gillies, spokesman for CERN, the science alliance currently engaged in firing up the world's mightiest ever particle-punisher - the Large Hadron Collider.

The LHC is big science, having cost £2.7bn to build. The UK pays £34m annually direct to the LHC, plus £70m subscription to CERN. Those funds could be seen as candidates for Lord Drayson to divert towards his former colleagues in the pharma and medtech industries*, or for spending on his supersonic car project.

"The LHC has been in development since the 1980s," said Gillies. "It's just about to start producing results. Pulling the plug now would make zero sense."

The LHC was actually supposed to be ramming hadrons into each other at light speed already, but has had to shut down for repairs following a liquid helium leak and associated supercooled magno-vacuum-pipe plumbing issues.

Gillies added that CERN is feeling the economic pinch like everyone else, indeed rather more so.

"We haven't had a real-terms budget increase since the 1970s," he said. "And last year's budget didn't even keep up with inflation."

Gillies said that CERN has had to make staff cuts in order to afford the LHC, shedding 500 of its 3,000-strong workforce in recent years and planning to lose another 300 by 2011.

He said that it was unlikely that the basic science being done at the mighty underground hadron-puncher would bear economic fruit immediately. The discovery or non-discovery of the Higgs Boson, for instance, while of critical importance to understanding the nature of the universe (and incidentally to settling the intellectual grudge bitchslap deathmatch between renowned boffinry heavyweights Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs) probably won't immediately result in any new technology.

"But I bet you anything you like useful stuff will come of it eventually," said Gillies. "And in the meantime there will be spinoff benefits. When you get a big group of highly intelligent people together trying to achieve difficult things, if they need something they just sit down and invent it. And those inventions are often very useful."

Gillies cited PET hospital scanner technology, the detection part of which came out of particle physics. He added that a problem of PET scanners is that they can't work inside magnetic fields, meaning that separate scans are required if their results are to be integrated with those from MRI machines - and that means expense, mistakes and time wasted.

"But our people here have decided they need PET-type detectors which can work inside magnetic fields," said Gillies. (The LHC is full of magnetism, using a 27km doughnut-shaped field generated by liquid-helium-chilled superconductor magnets to channel its brutally powerful beams of protons.)

"Now the medical imaging industry are looking at what we've done, with a view to making combined PET/MRI scanners," adds Gillies. "Of course, it won't make us any money."

CERN is required by its own rules to publish all its research and tech development openly for all to use. Famously, the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee while working at CERN. Particle physics research and hardware had nothing to do with it as such - almost any computer-savvy person might have done the same, for instance in a corporate lab - but Gillies argues that CERN's status and methods as a gov-funded scientific institution led to a much more favourable economic result than would otherwise have occurred.

"We were required by our rules to offer up the web technology for anyone to use," he told the Reg. "Nobody knew how important it was back then except Tim and a few others, but we'd have done the same regardless, because we have to.

"And I'd argue that that's why we have the world wide web today, not the Microsoft web and the Apple web and a lot of other competing methods all incompatible with each other.

"That's helped the economy, hasn't it?"

Undeniably, we'd say. Though our colleagues on the treepulp grid might disagree.

So, we asked Gillies if he thought it makes sense for the UK to cut its contribution to CERN and put the money into pharma or something else on Drayson's favoured list.

"No, I don't think it does," he said bluntly. ®

Bootnote

*Drayson got his start as a biz kingpin in a management buyout at sweets maker Trebor. The company which made him rich, however, was Powderject. Since the noble Lord sold out of the firm there have been some questions as to whether the vaccines it sold were actually any good. The eponymous injection device, meanwhile, has failed to reach the market.

Subsequently raised from the common herd to the peerage, Drayson then entered government as buying chief at the MoD, where he pursued a policy of channelling taxpayer money to British arms makers no matter what the consequences for British troops. After the Army managed to frustrate his plan to use their armoured-vehicles budget to resuscitate the moribund British tank industry he resigned in a huff, saying he was retiring to race biofuelled cars.

Now he's back, despite not having won Le Mans. This time he's in charge of the science budget.

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