Large astronomical projects like the Dark Energy Survey and the James Webb Space Telescope provide innumerable benefits to society, like technological spin-offs, national prestige, and a way to satisfy our common human curiosity.
How are we supposed to judge the value of large scientific projects? With traditional projects the cost-benefit analysis is rather straightforward. We sink in a bunch of time and money into a project, and we judge the success of those projects based on how much money they make or how many benefits they provide to society.
But by their very nature large scientific projects don’t return any money on the investment. And they don’t have any immediate impact on society. So are they really worth it?
In a recent paper an Oxford economist argues that yes, large scientific projects are worth it. But we have to be very careful about how we measure that worth.
The first benefit that large scientific projects have is that they provide a training ground for highly skilled workers. The vast majority of the people working in large collaborations are temporary researchers, hired right out of grad school for a limited period of time to accomplish the goals of the collaboration. Once the project is over those people move on to other things, and since there are essentially no jobs in academia most of those people go into industry.
Those people are very intelligent, very motivated, and very skilled. Working in those scientific collaborations gives them hands-on experience to sharpen those skills, which then makes them very attractive candidates for many businesses in industry.
Secondly, many corporations are involved in the process of assisting scientific goals. They may make instruments or optics or specialized sensors, for example. Those industries get paid to do their work and they develop new technological solutions that can then be applied to other problems or spun off into their own revenue generating products.
But perhaps the most important benefits to society comes in the form of prestige and satisfaction. The vast majority of scientific projects are sponsored by national governments and funded through taxpayer revenues. Nations strive to be seen as large, powerful, and capable. One way for a nation to display its wealth is to fund arts and sciences. The more scientists and interesting science projects that a nation can support, the more prestige it has on the world stage.
When it comes to satisfaction, we are all ultimately human. Part of what makes us human is our innate curiosity about the world around us. Science satisfies that curiosity in an enormous way. Science makes the results of its research available for public consumption. What we learn in science is available and open to all. We enjoy the fruits of scientific labor the same way we enjoy the work of artists and musicians. It is something that touches all of us and impacts all of us.
Put simply, science is good for us.