Large astronomical projects like the Dark Energy Survey and the James Webb Space Telescope offer myriad benefits to society, such as technological spin-offs, national prestige, and a way to satisfy our shared human curiosity.
How should we judge the value of large scientific projects? In traditional projects, the cost-benefit analysis is quite simple. We invest a lot of time and money in a project and judge the success of these projects by how much money they make or how many benefits they bring to society.
But it is in the nature of large scientific projects that the investment does not pay off. And they have no immediate impact on society. So are they really worth it?
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In a recent article, an Oxford economist argues that large scientific projects are worthwhile. But we have to be very careful how we measure this value.
The first advantage of large scientific projects is that they provide a training ground for a highly skilled workforce. The vast majority of people who work in large collaborations are temporary researchers who are hired for a limited period right after graduation to achieve the goals of the collaboration. Once the project is complete, these people move on to other things, and since there are virtually no jobs in academia, most of these people go into industry.
These people are very intelligent, very motivated and very competent. Working in these scientific collaborations gives them hands-on experience to hone their skills, which then makes them very attractive candidates for many companies in the industry.
Second, many companies are involved in supporting scientific goals. For example, you can make instruments or optics or special sensors. These industries are paid for their work and develop new technological solutions that can then be applied to other problems or turned into their own revenue-generating products.
But perhaps the most important benefits to society come in the form of prestige and happiness. The vast majority of scientific projects are funded by national governments and funded by tax revenues. Nations strive to be seen as big, powerful, and capable. One way for a nation to flaunt its wealth is by funding the arts and sciences. The more scientists and interesting science projects a country can support, the more prestige it enjoys on the world stage.
When it comes to happiness, we are all human after all. Part of what makes us human is our innate curiosity about the world around us. Science satisfies this curiosity enormously. Science makes the results of its research available to the public. What we learn in science is available and open to everyone. We enjoy the fruits of scientific work as much as the work of artists and musicians. It is something that touches us all and affects us all.
In short: science is good for us.