SARAH WILD: Spending on large science projects requires fine balance
"Big science instruments cost money and that money has to come from somewhere..."
It’s a difficult time to be a scientist. It’s an even more difficult time to be a scientist asking for money.
"Economise" and "constraints" are two of the most bandied about words in science: inflation makes things more expensive, but the cookie jar of cash doesn’t swell.
This doesn’t sit that well in science, where the ideas are big — and, arguably, should remain big. If you’re going to get other countries together and lobby to build a scientific instrument, then it should be the best, biggest, shiniest instrument the world has seen. Scientists dreaming of building a telescope, for example, don’t simply want a little TV dish — they want a Telescope with a capital T, with bells, whistles and the ability to detect a heartbeat from the dawn of time. This is why you should never give scientists a blank cheque. If you do, you get the James Webb Space Telescope. In 2018, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US will launch this magnificent space-based telescope, which has infrared capabilities to study the history of the universe, hunt for more exoplanets and, in general, just be scientifically awesome. But when the idea was mooted in 1996, the price tag was about $500m. As things stand, it is $8bn. Even accounting for inflation, that’s...