Week 8- Big Science

This week, we had a great talk from Jim Metson, Chief Science Advisor for the ministry of business and employment.

We were told to estimate the costs of things such as an academic’s salary throughout their life time, costs for the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider, and costs of the Marsden fund per year.

Although $5 million- the estimate for an academic’s pay throughout their working lives, seems like a lot, often times, large scientific research projects can use much more than $5 million in a shorter amount of time. While research projects can keep getting funded more and more in a short amount of time, the tenure for an academic only has a slow, steady increase, and some people never reach professorship.

It is always difficult to choose what projects to fund, and because we are a small country, sometimes participation in large-scale research projects is limited (although we do ‘punch above our weight’). Big science is always associated with big money and not always associated with big returns, so we must invest in things that will bring benefits in terms of research back to our country.

One of the big science projects that NZ is funding is the Square kilometer Array.

Here is a pleasant image of space for your viewing pleasure:

All credits to hubble telescope

Although ground-based telescope systems, such as the square kilometer array, may still have some light pollutions in their images taken, the optical aperture of the Square kilometer array of telescopes is so large that it can provide super-high resolution photos of space. ‘Square kilometer’ refers to the total collecting area of all telescopes in the array.

The numerous telescopes belonging to the array are going to be built in Australia and South Africa. This is a case where NZ participates in the big science (by providing funding, computational power, and expertise) without actually hosting the relevant infrastructure.

After introductions to projects such as the SKA, we were split up into two groups. Pretending we were the Danish parliament, we had to argue for or against the statement: “We should renew our CERN membership instead of funding more academic positions”. Both sides had good arguments (some people clearly had experience in debates!), although there were only so many points to be made.

It went something like this:

For: CERN is great, to be able to participate first-hand instead of relying on open-source data is important to inspire our scientists.

Against: Yes, CERN may be great, but teaching positions are more important for inspiring our young people, so they can stay in Denmark.

For: But CERN would provide inspiration for the teaching staff, which is important for keeping their students in Denmark!

Against: But, costs better used elsewhere, like teaching!

etc etc. Although it was interesting to see who was good at speaking their points coherently and who was not (I would be in this group, although I was not picked), the debate lacked statistics to back up claims, and it was easy to make claims like the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ sides did, although they were not solid claims. How many teaching jobs can be funded? Is the issue of young people leaving Denmark really such a big problem? What does the country actually lose by not renewing its CERN membership? It would be great to see answers to these questions.

At the end, the class took to a vote, we were told to ignore the groups we were in before, but most people voted for the group they were in. I found this intriguing- why did I vote ‘For’, even though I wasn’t really sure either way? My guess would be because ‘For’ was the only viewpoint I considered, and whenever I heard an opinion from the other side, I had to think of rebuttal points quickly in case I was picked. All this made most of us biased- unless we have really thought of points supporting the other side- and when we’re not too sure, it’s easy to pick the ones we know there are good arguments for. To see a much fairer vote, we could’ve came up with 2-3 reasons ‘For’, and 2-3 reasons ‘Against’, so they can be weighed up against each other fairly.

Thank you for reading!

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