Forget About the Price Tag

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 22 May 2013)
You can’t put a price on science Canada.

I want you all to imagine a scenario; it is 1950 and Edmund Hilary goes in seek of financial backing to conquer Everest.

Hilary: “Hello Mr Financial backer, could you give me some money to help me conquer Mount Everest please?”
Financial Backer: “That depends. What financial return can you promise me on my investment.”
Hilary: “Ermmm, none. Actually, if push comes to shove I may come to you again for more money.”
Financial Backer: “With no return upon that either I take it?”
Hilary: “Absolutely none I’m afraid.”
Financial Backer: “Hmmmm. So what benefits would your expedition reap for mankind.”
Hilary: “Mankind will have finally conquered the world’s highest mountain. Something that has never before been achieved.”
Financial Backer: “Yes, that I understand. But will it help cure diseases or find some way of enhancing the lives of disabled people?”
Hilary: “Ermm, no. Not that I can see.”
Financial Backer: “Then why do you want to do it?”
Hilary: “Because it’s there.”
Financial Backer: “Get out of my office, you fool.”

Okay, it is a humorous and bizarre scenario, but there is a point to this. Under scientific research cutbacks being instituted today, were Hilary planning to conquer Everest today and he approached the Canadian government for funding, they would turn him down on exactly the above grounds.

The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have ruled that the National Research Council (NRC) must focus on practical commercial science and concentrate less on fundamental science that may not have obvious business applications. In a nutshell this means that in future research which does not bring a solid financial return, does not benefit industry, or does not find cures or otherwise enhance human life will be very unlikely to receive funding (and I wouldn’t be too sure about the latter criteria).

Basically the Canadian government is saying if there are no visible results, then research is not worth funding. For not only it is short-sighted, it goes directly against all which makes us human.

There shall and have always be people of course who will ask what use research is if there is no visible benefit to mankind. Why put a man on the Moon if it doesn’t cure cancer or AIDS? Why build a Large Hadron Collider if it does not feed the starving millions? To those people, I will repeat what Sir Edmund Hilary is reputed to have said when asked why he set out to conquer Mount Everest and which I quoted earlier above, “Because it’s there.”

Inquisitiveness is a major part of the human condition. From the moment we are born, we question all around us. And because all life is a learning process, that curiosity stays with us until the moment we draw our last breath.

Mankind cannot help but be curious and to question things. It is one of the major forces which drives us and surely one of the things which does indeed set us apart from the beasts and defines us as human beings. Indeed were that not true, I would not be sitting in Scotland, typing this on a computer and posting it on the internet, and you, wherever you are in the world, would not be sitting at your computer reading this on the internet. Instead my name would be McUG, I would maybe be living in the cave next to yours in sub-Saharan east Africa and I would be trying to explain to you in grunts why human inquisitiveness is so very important.

And this is why we carry out research which has no apparent benefit. From day one it has helped us to understand the world around us, and in less than 100 years, to better understand the universe we live in. Simply put, we cannot help but question these things. It would drive us insane not to do so.

Consider this at the most basic level. The USA has their famous research facility at Groom Lake; a detachment of Edwards Air Force Base which has the official designation Area 51. It is well known that entry to Area 51 is completely restricted, and US forces helicopters and ground vehicles are constantly on the watch for trespassers. The very fact that Area 51 is restricted has led to vast speculation about just what may be going on in there, as well a huge plethora of stories about UFOs, aliens, back-engineering of extraterrestrial craft, conspiracy theories and other unsubstantiated and unsupportable claims. Fair enough, more than a few who talk and write about Area 51 may range from the deluded to the downright nutty, but it clearly illustrates the point of mankind’s inquisitiveness.

So it is with science. We seek out things which have no possible benefit to us simply because we need to know. And that is healthy. For instance, the largest star in the universe yet discovered is VY Canis Majoris; a red hypergiant star in the constellation of Canis Major, which is 1,975,000,000 kilometres in diameter. If placed alongside it, our own sun would not be visible. No cosmic rays from this star ever bombard Earth and it has absolutely no effect on our lives. Yet the knowledge that it is there does affect us. It stuns us into the sheer vastness of our universe, of our place in it and drives us to learn more. I would argue therefore that our lives are indeed enhanced by VY Canis Majoris, for the simple fact that we know it is there. Can any of you deny that?

Likewise the Large Hadron Collider is of value, in that it has the potential to teach us just how our entire universe, our solar system, our Earth, we, came to be in the first place. And that is one particular question mankind has been asking since we first looked around us and into the night sky. It may not give a financial return, advance industry, or cure terrible diseases, but I would venture that it is pure science and beautiful physics seeking answers to some of our most fundamental questions, and you simply cannot put a price on that.

Not that I am convinced the Canadian government seeks to cure terrible diseases. From what I have been reading the cutbacks to the NRC seem to be geared mostly towards industry and financial returns. One more step in the never-ending quest of the almighty buck and the worship of Mammon. Frankly I find it disgusting that industry and finance should have any place in scientific research.

One wonders however if the Canadian government realises that there are times scientific research has accidental benefits, or benefits which do not become apparent until long afterwards? One day in 1862, Glasgow born engineer John Scott Russell was riding along the towpath of the Union Canal back to his Edinburgh lodgings when he observed a barge stop suddenly and a form a bow wave. It got him thinking and he purchased a large tank, which he filled with water and made observations on the way waves behaved. This led him to publish a paper on the Solitary Wave and Wave Theory. And the importance of this is? Well if you are using Wi-Fi or have a mobile phone, the signals which both rely upon follow exactly the same principles.

Similarly when Patrick Matthew, a Scottish tree hybridiser, wrote of observations on how different trees adapted better to their surroundings, he gave the world the Theory of Natural Selection. He, Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin and so many other observers of evolution could not possibly have forseen the mapping of the human genome, or that the understanding of evolution would be vital to a great many scientists, including those such a virologists, who rely upon it to save lives. And let us not forget that when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he did so completely by accident. Yet penicillin is arguably the most important discovery of all time, as it has saved countless lives in the past, it is saving lives right now and it shall save countless lives in the future.

So would those of the mindset of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government funded John Scott Russell, Patrick Matthew, Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin and Sir Alexander Fleming? Highly unlikely, as none of the things they were working on had either a solid financial return nor were they beneficial to mankind.

As a Scot, I cannot help but feel disappointed in Canada; a nation with so many of Scots descent that many like myself refer to it as “The largest and most westerly of the Outer Hebrides.” It goes against the grain with me and I find it not a little bit sad that Canada should be cutting back research, when Scots ingenuity has given so very much to the world.

And speaking of migration, there is one more great irony to this. It is said that when Christopher Columbus set off to find a new, faster route to India, some thought he might sail off the edge of the world. Of course, Columbus thought no such thing. However, imagine if more of his backers (or he) did think that. Or even consider there was no guarantee he would be successful and bring a solid financial return. Had those backing Columbus in 1492 had thought like the Canadian government of today, he would never have set sail and discovered the Americas – and there would be no nation of Canada today.

We do not carry out scientific research to make a quick buck. And scientists realise that what may not have visible benefit to mankind at the time, may well do one day. But the benefit is always there. The benefit is in furthering our knowledge, and answering questions which if unanswered leave us frustrated and our lives are a lot poorer for not knowing.

Feed the bellies of the starving by all means. But never forget to feed hungry minds as well, and to quench them with the knowledge which they are ever thirsting for. Each and every human mind on the face of the planet requires such sustenance, every bit as much as their bodies require food and drink. In closing, I can say no fairer than quote the words of US President John F Kennedy in 1962;

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

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