Knowledge for it’s own sake?

October 6, 2007

I have been helping to prepare a workshop that will be held at CERN just outside Geneva in mid November. CERN, you will recall, is where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator that is 27-kilometer in circumference, is being built in order to test for the existence of a tiny and elusive particle, the Higgs Boson. Two research teams are competing to find the elusive particle, one called ATLAS, the other called CMS. ATLAS is one of the largest high-energy physics experiments ever undertaken.

And also one of the most expensive. With the costs of experimentation in high-energy physics now running into the billions of dollars, ATLAS-CERN needs to justify its existence to its stakeholders – the governments of the 34 countries which jointly fund its operations. How does it do this? By emphasizing the value of knowledge for its own sake, of man’s understanding of the universe and of his place in it. By smashing particles into each other at speeds close to that of light, scientists at CERN, probe the innermost nature of matter, the origins of the universe, etc. If we can find the Higgs Boson, so the argument goes, then the last – and still missing – piece of the so-called Standard Model in physics will fall into place. The US abandoned the search for the Higgs Boson because it was too expensive. Europe enthusiastically took up the reins.

The culture of science has always stressed the intrinsic value of knowledge – knowledge for its own sake. And there is plenty of evidence that natural curiosity rather than greed or ambition drives many scientists to outstanding efforts. But why would outsiders buy into this argument? Why would outsiders fund scientists pursuing ‘knowledge for its own sake’, either through patronage or – now more commonly – through taxation? It seems to me that even at the time of the scientific revolution in the sixtheenth century, the crowned heads of Europe who acted as the patrons of science weren’t buying any of that. No. What they were after was better fortifications, more accurate cannons, more reliable signaling devices, etc. In short, they were indulging scientists because they believed that in doing so there would eventually be technological payoffs that they could benefit from. In the knowledge-for-its-own-sake discourse, the subtext has always been that good science produces good technology. In effect, we have here a variant of the distinction between what Chris Argyris and Don Shön called Espoused theory and Theory-in-use – ie, between what you preach and what you do. In recent years, the preaching/doing gap in basic research has narrowed somewhat as the pragmatic orientation in science funding has come to the fore. Everyone is now looking for quicker and more frequent payoffs. Knowledge for its own sake, go hang.

Do we pay a price for this change in orientation? You bet! The first paper on the quantum theory appeared in 1900. The first practical application of the theory appeared in the mid-1940s. And, although today the technological applications of that theory have been estimated to account for up to 25% of the US’s GDP, such a return, of course, was never guaranteed.

CERN now partly justifies its existence by citing the technological spin-offs that it has generated over the years, the World Wide Web being the most notable. But in doing this, it runs the danger of adopting the discourse of its critics. Yet what high-energy physics buys you is not the oft-cited returns on investment so beloved of accountants, but options on the future. And options thinking requires a rather different discourse that covers a rather different time frame.

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