The Cost of Knowledge

So it wasn’t long ago that one Sir David King (former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science) was speaking rather vociferously about how we have spent too much on the LHC. While I certainly agree with his cause that we should be spending more on global climate and overpopulation issues, I don’t think that diverting money away from physics is really the right course of action. Part of me has to wonder if he was one of the key players in that drastic budget cut to physics a few months ago. Frankly, £80 million seems almost trivial in the context of the rest of this entry…

The thing is, the LHC has in total (that is, over the last 25 years) cost between €3.2b and €6.4b. Which is a maximum of £5.03 billion or (seeing as all the listings I’ve read quote values in US dollars) $9.2 billion. 9.2 billion dollars shared over roughly 50 countries (though I don’t know the proportions involved). Now, take that figure out of context, and yes, it does sound rather a lot.

Though let’s look at it this way. The UK is only the 79th largest country in the world by area and the 22nd largest by population. Why then, does the UK have the 2nd largest military expenditure in the world? Yes that’s right, after the US, we are the second best at blowing stuff up. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2007 we spent $59.7 billion. For a nation our size, that’s just preposterous! In fact, of the global expenditure of $1.34 trillion, that’s about 5%. These numbers are, quite literally, astronomical. Trust me. I’m an astronomer.

So Sir David King, and any other critics — before you pour cold water over the achievements of physics, perhaps you should criticise the UK’s disproportionately high military budget first.

For the record as well, per capita we’re only the 37th biggest CO2 producer in the world. I don’t think we’re doing that badly…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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10 Responses to The Cost of Knowledge

  1. underwr1tten says:

    Just an anecdotal example to support this: my university has had such severe budget cuts that the philosophy department is not allowed to give paper print-outs to students. Not even for exams. They’re allowed to use projectors, of course, but I like to write all over the exam questions. Quite a few of the students and professors are thinking about getting together with the economics department to offer solutions to the school. Hopefully they don’t get too philosophical about it, or they’ll never fix anything. :p

  2. pax_athena says:

    Totally agree with this. (I was going to write my own answer to the post, but you summarized everything I wanted to say).
    And while I think that Germany does not spend as much on military as UK or the USA do, there is a whole bunch of other things money gets wasted for, e.g. certain subventions, because they have such a strong lobby behind them. Compared to what some universities (!) are lacking, it just makes me angry.

  3. invaderxan says:

    My thoughts entirely!

  4. Congress is practically run by lobby groups. There aren’t many politicians that don’t answer to some big industry or other. It kind of spoils the democratic process.

  5. While it’s good for a country to have a well-funded military, I think the US and a few other countries go overboard. My take is that a small fraction of what the US spends on the military can be used to eliminate poverty completely (in the US), solve the greenhouse emission problem, send humans to Mars, and probably lots more, while in no way harming the ability of the country to defend itself.
    When I was in the public school system in NYC, all the teachers ever talked about were budget cuts. In a first world country with a strong economy, stripping away funding from schools should be unthinkable. And yet, while some are rolling in money, others don’t have enough to eat.

  6. invaderxan says:

    Heheh… in short, both governments could really do with thinking twice about what they spend their money on — military or otherwise. :)

  7. I’m not saying they should cut funding altogether — that would be foolish. Just that it seems rather disproportionate for how big our country actually is. Incidentally, in case you’re curious — 45% of the world defense budget in 2007 was spent by the US!
    Honestly, for the UK to spend that much on the military really doesn’t surprise me. Traditionally, the UK has had a long history of having a strong and otherwise well-funded military. While you all are a physically small country, the amount you spend on defense need not be proportional to the number of citizens. One could say that old-habits die hard. ;)
    As for how much the US is spending, that’s not at all surprising to me, as the polls show that Americans want a strong/well-funded military. For me, I feel that if anything, my tax dollars going into military spending is better than spending it on nonsense like rental assistance or the commodity supplemental food program (we already have food stamps, but this basically a duplicate program — do we really need two food stamp programs that are federally funded?). This is what I was referring to before about pork barrel policies that are more wasteful than military spending — they are programs we don’t need, and where the money could be better used elsewhere, like funding the science agencies we have.
    I won’t deny that a budget cut of 80 million pounds is bad, but the situation is not much better here in the US. In reading this article, my major concern is that it seems that the bills that the congress is proposing for more spending on science also entails proposing more spending on other stuff, as it says, “…both Democrats and Republicans decided to push partisan earmarks and spending into the appropriations bill to score political points with their constituents.” Great, so in order to try and get more scientific funding, we have to fund your little stupid pet projects that are just a continued waste of our taxpayer dollars.
    I’ve not seen a single petition overturn a government decision, inspite of overwhelming numbers of signatories. Not exactly democratic.
    I think I’ve heard of a few here in the states, but the victories are few and far in between. So yes, not exactly democratic. :-

  8. invaderxan says:

    I’m not saying they should cut funding altogether — that would be foolish. Just that it seems rather disproportionate for how big our country actually is. Incidentally, in case you’re curious — 45% of the world defense budget in 2007 was spent by the US!
    My point is more that a mere £80 million can decimate the scientific community, who’re left like dogs fighting for scraps from the hearty meal enjoyed by the armed forces. Frankly, as a taxpayer, I’m not entirely comfortable with so much of my money being spent on artillery, when a small fraction of that could fund a huge number of more worthy causes.
    The system is much the same here — we all have the power to write to the authorities (regardless of whether or not they listen) or vote out a poor leader (even though no one actually voted Gordon Brown in). The 10 Downing Street website even has the option of allowing anyone to start an online petition. In several years though, I’ve not seen a single petition overturn a government decision, inspite of overwhelming numbers of signatories. Not exactly democratic.
    But I digress…

  9. I guess this goes into the category of what’s worth how much to you? As an American, I would rather have a well-funded military than not. Whether or not our present course of spending (on non-military items) is beneficial is a different question. Of course, I’d rather the government appropriate more money to science than to stupid pork barrel projects like building bridges to nowhere, or spending $700 billion to buy up bank debts (which is legislation the US Congress is presently examining) but that’s my own personal preference.
    The final say is ultimately with those who have the power to make or remove laws. Of course, as an American, I can write to those who are my personal representatives requesting that they do or do not support certain legislation. If they end up supporting legislation I do not favor, then I can vote them out of office. Sometimes of course, it’s not that simple, but that’s the way the system was originally designed to operate.

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